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What happens to your body during chemotherapy?

Published: 28 Jan 2019

If you’re about to start chemotherapy, it’s natural to feel apprehensive or even scared. You are embarking on an intensive treatment plan to tackle cancer head-on, which will undoubtedly result in side effects affecting your whole body.

To get a basic understanding why chemo has such a huge physical impact on the body you need to understand what normally and naturally happens within our bodies.

As we are aware, our bodies are constructed from many things; cells being one particular component. When a cell is damaged it will cleverly split into two to repair the damage; known as cell division.
Not all cells throughout our bodies divide at the same rate, some areas such as your hair, skin, bone marrow and gastrointestinal tract, the cells divide at a much faster rate than other areas, thus giving the term ‘rapidly dividing cells’.

The majority of cancerous tumours are made up of mutated cells, whereby the normal growth balance is affected so the damaged cancerous cells divide and multiply at a much faster rate.  This imbalance results in the formulation of a mass tumour.

Chemotherapy drugs are designed to kill the rapidly dividing cells as they split in two, stopping them in their tracks before they start to do any damage to your normal cells.

However, by targeting rapidly dividing cancer cells, chemotherapy can unintentionally affect other parts of the body where your cells naturally divide quicker than average. These include your hair, which is constantly growing; skin, where cells are always renewing; and bone marrow, which is continually producing blood cells.

As a result, areas such as hair and skin are more prone to damage from chemotherapy treatment leading to more noticeable side effects.

Let’s take a closer look at what else is happening to your body during chemotherapy, and what physical impact you can expect from treatment…

The effect on your body?

As we’ve already mentioned, chemotherapy is designed to target rapidly dividing cancerous cells, but can also affect otherwise healthy parts of the body where cells naturally split faster.
In addition to that, because chemo is a ‘systemic treatment’ (meaning the chemo drugs circulate through your entire bloodstream and not just the affected area), the chemo drugs are likely to have an adverse effect on your entire body.
Some of the additional common side-effects cancer patients experience as a result of chemo include:

The effect on your hair?

We’ve established that chemotherapy works by targeting the rapidly dividing cells in your body. Unfortunately, hair bulbs, that develop hair follicles, use this same process of rapid cell division.  
Therefore, in short, some chemotherapy drugs when introduced into the body to attack the affected cancer cells, can also attack the hair bulbs; causing the hair to fall out (medically known as CIA – Chemotherapy Induced Alopecia).

One way you can limit the damaging side effects chemo can cause to your hair is to wear a cold cap during chemotherapy. Cold cap therapy works by reducing the metabolic rate of the hair bulbs in the scalp into a hibernated state preventing the uptake of chemotherapy drugs, via the blood capillaries, into the hair bulbs.

Here’s more about the science behind cold caps, and how they work.

Which chemo side effects will I experience?

There are around 100 different chemotherapy drugs currently in use, and the exact combination you will be given, and how often, will depend on the type of cancer you have, and where you are being treated.

Some drugs are more likely to cause certain side effects than others, so it’s impossible to make a generic statement about the physical impact of undergoing treatment. Also, everybody responds differently; you may be more susceptible to some side effects, and find it easier to deal with others.
Before you start treatment, talk to your medical support team about the type of drugs you will be treated with, and the common side effects they are known to cause, to get a better idea of what to expect. You can then plan the steps you need to take to help manage your symptoms.

The good news is that most chemotherapy side effects only have a short-term impact on the body, however that doesn’t make them any easier to handle at the time.

Strangely enough, many cancer sufferers cope better with pain and nausea than they do with the effects that change their physical appearance, such as hair loss, which is why many people turn to cold cap therapy for help.

About Penguin Cold Cap Therapy

Penguin Cold Caps has helped thousands of people across the world to dramatically reduce hair loss during their chemotherapy treatment, leaving them feeling more confident about their appearance and emotionally and psychologically stronger.  For many cold cap users, it’s a way to fight back and take control over their disease.

View our testimonials to see how other cancer sufferers have successfully used Penguin Cold Caps and still have their hair after chemo.