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How Effective Is Chemotherapy for Cancer?

A diagram of normal blood and blood from someone with leukemia, a type of cancer.
The effectiveness of chemotherapy is dependent upon the type of cancer a patient has.
Chemotherapy is used to attack cancer cells, but it does not come without side effects.
Chemotherapy is often administered at infusion centers, where trained professionals can watch for adverse reactions.
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  • Written By: Ken Black
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 04 August 2014
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The effectiveness of chemotherapy for cancer has been an issue that has been long debated in the medical community. Some put the effectiveness using the chemotherapy at as little as 2 percent to 4 percent. Others say the results of using chemotherapy for cancer are much higher. In most cases, the only thing the two sides agree on is that the effectiveness of chemotherapy is largely dependent on the stage and type of cancer the patient has.

To understand how effective using chemotherapy for cancer can be, the medical community may use a number of different measurements. One of the most common is the five-year survival rate after diagnosis. In one study published in the journal known as Clinical Oncology, nearly 38 percent of those with testicular cancer, and more than 40 percent of those with Hodgkin’s Disease, survived five years due to chemotherapy.

Other results in the survey were not nearly as promising. For example, only 2 percent of those with lung cancer survived to the five-year mark as a result of chemotherapy. That does not mean chemotherapy for cancer cannot extend lives. Even in late-stage lung cancer, those not using drugs had a survival rate of four months, versus 16 to 20 months for those who took chemotherapy. After a certain period of time, however, those taking chemotherapy for cancer often develop a resistance to the drugs.

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In some cases, despite its lack of effectiveness with some types of conditions, taking chemotherapy for cancer may be the only option. Many other treatment options, such as radiation, only treat cells in a specific part of the body. If a cancer has spread, then chemotherapy, which can reach cells in all parts of the body, becomes a more likely course of treatment. Some chemotherapy drugs may be more effective in treating cancer in certain portions of the body, but typically a more general type of drug is prescribed.

One thing that opponents of using chemotherapy for cancer often point out is that chemotherapy may be credited for treating things like Hodgkin’s Disease, but that it may lead to other types of cancers. Some studies have found incidents of other types of cancers increased significantly in patient’s who had Hodgkin’s Disease, and underwent chemotherapy versus those who selected other treatment options. Thus, chemotherapy may actually play a role in causing cancer in some patients.

One major factor that may limit the effectiveness of chemotherapy for cancer is that doctors try to prescribe a dosage that allows for at least some enhanced quality of life. Chemotherapy is a drug that kills cells indiscriminately, which can lead to a myriad of side effects including nausea, fatigue and hair loss. If given in significant enough doses, the drug itself can be lethal. Therefore, doctors are limited on the dosages they can prescribe.

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Rotergirl
Post 1

This is one of those "it depends" questions. There is no doubt many, many people are alive today who would have been dead 40 years ago before chemotherapy was as advanced as it is today.

Chemo is hellish, without question. However, many people get through it and go on to lead normal lives. It just depends on the type of cancer and how advanced it is. Early treatment is nearly always the most successful kind.

Some cancers are just not vulnerable to chemo. In these cases, oncologists have to look at other therapies to help someone.

Some people want to rail against chemo and scream that it's poison and destructive, yadda, yadda, yadda. But the truth is, it's what's available right now. A good diet and exercise may help prevent cancer and may keep a cancer patient in better shape, but it can't do everything.

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