Chemo, Radiation, Stem Cell
Depending on the type of cancer you have and the stage that you’re diagnosed in, you’ll be facing a myriad of treatment options. I’m going to give you a little insight into the potentials here.
All chemo’s were not created equal. Each one has been shown to be effective against certain kinds of cancer, and even certain stages of certain kinds of cancer. And generally speaking, Oncologists don’t prescribe just one chemo for you; it’s generally a “cocktail” of different drugs that have been shown to work better in unison than they’d work on their own. Over my 8 year cancer career, I’ve had bleomycin, gemcibine, navibean, cisplatin, adromicyn, vincristine, nitrogen mustard, procarbizine, cytoxin, doc-something (ABVD) at a minimum. If I’ve forgotten one or two, I apologize to the drug company who produces it.
Each of the chemo cocktails I received had different effects on me. For instance, navibean and gemcibine struck me as some of the “softest” chemo choices, if there is such a category. My side effects didn’t last as long and didn’t seem to be that intense. But I will suggest that the reaction each patient has is strongly "patient specific." That’s a term the medical community uses when they don’t know how you’ll react to treatment. And in all fairness to them, your mental state will determine a large portion of how well you do during chemo. If you’re feeling sorry for yourself and still haven’t come to grips with the fact that you DO have cancer and you DO have to have chemotherapy, then I’ll tell you right now you’ll not do well. If, on the other hand, you picture yourself doing well throughout the treatments, stay as active as possible and do the things your body needs to recouperate quickly, (eat right, take supplements, meditate) you’ll likely do better than most.
Radiation is used to treat specific areas of cancer that are easily reached by the radiation beams. If you have cancer throughout your entire body, chances are that radiation is not going to help you. But if you have a single mass, for instance, in your chest, the radiation beams can be pinpointed at it and will likely be very successful in shrinking or eliminating the mass.
Radiation beams are nothing more than x-ray beams that are slightly more intensive and longer in duration. If you’ve ever had an x-ray, then you know that the actual beams only come out of the machine for about 2-3 seconds. There is an audible “beep” that you can hear during that time. With radiation treatment, the beam is left on for 2-3 minutes, depending on your particular treatment protocol.
For me, radiation treatment was a breeze compared to everything else I undertook in my 5-year cancer career. I had radiation therapy every day for 3 weeks. I would literally be in and out of the clinic where I received my treatment in less than 30 minutes, including lobby time. And the only noticeable side effect I had was some shortness of breath when I exerted myself. Not too bad in my opinion. Of course, there were some odd things that happened during those 3 weeks, but enough about me.
Stem Cell Transplant
The process of an autologous stem cell transplant is very interesting to me. First I need to give you a little background on what a stem cell is and does. The majority of stem cells are in your bone marrow. The blood also contains some. Bone marrow stem cells magically turn into white blood cells, red blood cells, or platelets depending on what your body needs most at the time. It's really quite amazing if you think about it.
The stem cell transplant process starts by receiving a week of conditioning regimen. This is five days of chemo treatments. The chemo shocks your system and kills off a lot of living blood cells. Your bone marrow realizes this and releases a flood of new stem cells into the blood to begin to replace the lost cells.
Following the conditioning regiment, your transplant team will collect many of those new stem cells from the blood through a special machine. It's kind of like a kidney dialysis machine. They then freeze the harvested stem cells.
Next, they bombard your body with high dose chemotherapy for another five days while you enjoy your no-frills stay in a special ward at the hospital. The theory is that the chemo should wipe out all the cancer, but unfortunately it also takes a lot of healthy immune cells down in the friendly fire. Essentially at this point you have no immune system.
They then inject your own stem cells back into you. Over a period of 1-3 weeks, those stem cells start to grow back into red blood cells, white blood cells or platelets. This process is known as engraftment.
From there your body rebuilds its immune system and the cancer should be wiped out from all the chemo.
That's the entire process in a nutshell. Of course there are a ton of little things that happen along the way. And there are even more complications and/or side effects that can and will crop up. Believe me, this is one of the most misunderstood procedures you can have as a cancer patient. Do your homework on this one!
There's also something called an allogeniec stem cell transplant. The entire process outlined above is relatively the same, but instead of using your own stem cells, they harvest them from a donor, such as a brother or sister. The donor must be a "match" to you however, otherwise your body may see the donated stem cells as invaders and your immune system could begin to attack your own organs. This is known as graft-versus-host disease. Depending on whom you ask, you stand a 20-30% chance of dying from graft-versus-host disease following an allogeniec stem cell transplant.