It’s a scary word. It’s a word no-one wants to hear in relation to themselves or a family member.
After any cancer diagnosis, there are bound to be a million and one questions. We try to answer some of them here.
What’s the latest research?
More than a staggering 14 million people worldwide will, at some point in their lives, learn they have cancer.
In Australia, there has been a discovery of a new type of drug that can put cancer cells in animals into a “permanent state of sleep.”
The study has been years in the making, and is the first of its kind, stopping cancer cells from reproducing, without the potentially harmful side effects of conventional therapies.
Researchers are hopeful the drugs will be successful in halting the progression of cancer and delaying recurrence. It’s too early to confirm how the drugs could be used in a clinical setting, but researchers are excited about the prospects.
What is chemotherapy?
One of the main treatments for cancer is chemotherapy, or ‘chemo’. Chemo uses drugs to slow or kill cancer cells in the body.
There are many different types of drugs and combinations of drugs that will do this, depending on the type of cancer a person has.
Is chemotherapy the same for everyone?
Everyone’s body is different. What affects one may not affect another. There are numerous side effects to chemotherapy depending on the type of drugs given and every individual is going to experience them differently.
One of the main side effects of chemotherapy is fatigue. Another common side effect is nausea. A possible side effect which can be upsetting for some is hair loss.
Some people don’t lose their hair at all. Others lose hair in places they don’t expect to, like their eyebrows or eyelashes.
How is chemotherapy structured?
Depending on what cancer you have, chemo can be structured in a number of different ways. These include drugs taken orally, drugs administered directly into the organ or tissue affected, intravenously and even as a cream.
Intravenous, or IV, is one of the most common ways to administer chemotherapy. IV could take as little as twenty minutes to administer, or as long as the whole day. A tube is inserted into a vein in the arm or back of the hand, then taped down to hold in place while the drug works its way into the body.
The drugs administered orally can usually be taken at home and they are in the form of a tablet or capsule. Drugs injected into the affected organ or tissue are a less common form of treatment.
These can involve injections just under the skin or in the muscle, as well as directly into the tumor, though this is rare. Creams are usually for skin cancers and administered topically.
Most people attend the hospital or clinic as a day-patient, but some may have to stay overnight. In general, chemotherapy is delivered in treatment cycles, designed to give the body time to rest and recover and the treatment usually continues for six to 12 months.
Chemo usually takes at least the whole day. Patients are often advised to pack a ‘chemo bag’ to help relieve the boredom and be to prepared for a long day of treatment. The bag could include books, puzzles, additional layers of clothing, healthy snacks and music.
How is chemotherapy funded?
Some chemotherapy drugs are subsidised under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), however patients are usually required to pay a contribution for each supply of highly specialised drugs, at a similar rate to the PBS. Some medicines are not on the PBS and can be costly. Health insurers may pay a benefit towards non-PBS medication.
Medicare will pay for treatment in a public hospital – either as an admitted patient or an out-patient. Depending on the level of cover, private hospital insurance will pay for private hospital accommodation for an admitted patient.
If you are a public hospital patient, Medicare will pay for your treatment and for follow-up care. If you are a private patient in a private hospital, Medicare pays 75 per cent of the Medicare fee for services and procedures from your doctor, and the private health insurer pays the remaining 25 per cent of the Medicare fee (or slightly more if the doctor uses the insurer’s gap program). Specialists who charge more than the Medicare Schedule fee can leave patients with large out-of-pocket costs.
Outside of the hospital, visits to the GP and other health professionals may be bulk-billed, in which case there is nothing to pay.
If doctors charge more than the Schedule fee, Medicare will pay 100 per cent of the Schedule fee for GP visits, and 85 per cent for specialist visits. The patient is responsible for payment of the balance.
Patients who have substantial out-of-pocket expenses may end up hitting the Medicare Safety Net Threshold, which means that Medicare subsides all out-of-pocket costs for appointments and tests for the remainder of the calendar year.
It is important for patients to talk to their doctor about costs before commencing treatment.