Busting myths: 7 common chemotherapy misconceptions

a cancer patient receiving chemotherapy
When you receive a cancer diagnosis, you may experience fear, anger, sadness and confusion. This blog is an installment in an occasional series called “Busting myths,” designed to help dispel some widely held misconceptions about certain aspects of cancer.

If you think you know all about chemotherapy, you may be surprised to hear that it no longer automatically causes severe nausea and vomiting. In fact, medical advances over the years have helped lessen chemotherapy’s impact on the body in a number of ways. “Chemotherapy has a very bad rap,” says Dr. Dennis Citrin, a Medical Oncologist at our hospital near Chicago “While the cancer treatment itself has evolved for the better over the past few decades, its public perception hasn’t quite caught up. Educating patients about the facts is such an important piece of what we do every day.”

To help further that education, Dr. Citrin dispels a few of the most common chemotherapy myths:

There is only one kind of chemotherapy, and it can treat any kind of cancer.

Many people believe all types of cancer can be treated with the same chemotherapy drug, Dr. Citrin says, and that’s simply not the case. Different drugs target different types of cancer and work in different ways: to destroy cancer cells, to shrink tumors and to relieve symptoms of advanced cancer. These drugs may be given before, after or in conjunction with other treatments.

Chemotherapy is only administered intravenously.  

When most people think of chemotherapy treatment, they think of getting an IV infusion as part of an extended hospital stay. In reality, many chemotherapy drugs today are taken orally, and some are taken topically or as an injection. Also, if a chemotherapy dose is given intravenously, the patient is typically treated and then released, Dr. Citrin says. “It doesn’t disrupt a patient’s life the way it once did,” he says.

Chemotherapy causes severe nausea and vomiting.

Just 20 years ago, chemotherapy was associated with intense nausea and vomiting, Dr. Citrin says, and that reputation was well deserved. Today, though, many chemotherapy drugs are in part designed to prevent nausea and vomiting, or reduce their severity. “We often tell our patients that if they’re throwing up all day, we’re not doing our job,” Dr. Citrin says.

Chemotherapy may cause a serious, life-threatening infection.

Serious infections are no longer common in chemotherapy patients, largely because today’s chemotherapy treatments don’t cause immunosuppression; they cause myelosuppression, Dr. Citrin says. That means that instead of suppressing the body’s normal immune response, the bone marrow activity is limited, resulting in the production of fewer red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. And because the immune system isn’t affected, the body is still equipped to fight off infection.

If you don’t lose your hair during chemotherapy, it’s not working.

Although hair loss is common during chemotherapy treatment, not every patient will experience it. Some drugs are more likely to cause hair loss than others, and the risk varies widely, from zero chance to a 90 percent likelihood. Hair that falls out due to chemotherapy usually does so two to three weeks after the first treatment. But hair loss itself has nothing to do with whether the treatment is working, Dr. Citrin says.

Chemotherapy causes weight loss.

In fact, the opposite is more often true, especially when chemotherapy is prescribed after surgery to prevent breast cancer recurrence. “Many breast cancer patients expect to lose weight during chemotherapy, and they’re surprised when I tell them that they should instead expect to gain five to 10 pounds, and that it’s usually a sign that the treatment is working,” Dr. Citrin says.

You won’t be able to have children after chemotherapy.

This myth is grounded in the fact that, for many women, menstruation stops during chemotherapy treatment. But if a woman is in her 20s, 30s or even early 40s, she will likely menstruate again after treatment ends. “It really depends on the age of the patient,” Dr. Citrin says, “but in most cases, a woman’s periods will return after treatment ends unless she’s close to menopause or already through it.” Patients who are pregnant when diagnosed with cancer may be prescribed certain chemotherapy drugs that do not impact the baby, so pregnancy shouldn’t impede chemotherapy treatment, either.

Because chemotherapy has changed so much over the years, and because it is essential to many cancer patients’ treatment plans, education is vital. “Until recently, many people thought that if chemotherapy was prescribed, the cancer must be terminal,” Dr. Citrin says, “but that’s far from the case. So it’s not so much dispelling ‘myths’ as it is helping people learn the facts.”

Learn about supportive care therapies designed to help manage the side effects of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments.