There are many prescription drugs used for cancer treatment. Many of these drugs are used not only for treating the actual disease, but to help relieve the symptoms of cancer such as pain and many of the side effects of the disease such as nausea that is very common with this illness. Most of the anti-cancer drugs used for treatment work by inhibiting the process in which cells grow. Since these drugs affect cells that divide rapidly, many other cells in the body that are not cancerous are typically also affected by the medication. In addition, the specific way that these other cells are affected will directly determine the side effects of that drug. The other cells in the body that will be affected by anti-cancer drugs which inhibit DNA synthesis include the blood cells that help to fight off infection, carry oxygen to other parts of the body and help the blood in the body to clot. When the blood cells in the body are affected by drugs used in treating cancer, patients are typically more likely to develop infections and may feel very tired and bleed or bruise very easily. Other cells that are considered to be rapidly dividing cells that may be affected are those found in the roots of the hair as well as those that line the digestive tract. This is why you typically see cancer patients who have lost their hair as well as their appetites.
Chemotherapy drugs that are used to treat cancer are divided into different groups based on their chemical structure, how they work and their relationship to other drugs. Knowing how these drugs work is crucial in determining any side effects that they may cause.
Alkylating agents work by damaging the DNA in the body and preventing the cancer cells from reproducing. They work in every phase of the cell cycle and these drugs are used to treat a wide variety of cancers from sarcoma to breast and lung cancers, among many others. Because they do damage the body’s DNA, they can often cause long-term damage to the bone marrow which may lead to acute leukemia in very rare cases. The different types of alkylating agents include nitrogen mustards, nitrosoureas, triazines, ethylenimines and platinum drugs such as carboplatin and cisplatin.
Antimetabolites are cancer treatment drugs that cause interference in growth of the RNA and DNA. These drugs are typically used to treat tumors found in the intestinal tract, ovaries and breast as well as many types of leukemia and other cancers. Antimetabolites include 5-fluorouracil or 5-FU, Xeloda, methotrexate, cytarabine or Ara-C and several others.
Anti-tumor antibiotics are known as anthracyclines and are used commonly and work by interfering with enzymes that are involved in the replication of DNA. These drugs also work in all cell cycle phases and are used for a variety of different cancers. These drugs can cause permanent heart damage when given in high doses so there are typically lifetime dosage limits placed on them. Daunorubicin, epirubicin and idarubicin are all examples of anthracyclines. Mitomycin-C, actinomycin-D and bleomycin are other anti-tumor antibiotics that are used commonly. Another anti-tumor antibiotic that is used to treat prostate cancer, breast cancer, leukemia and lymphoma is mitoxantrone.
Topoisomerase inhibitors work by interfering with the enzymes known as topoisomerases. These enzymes aid in the separation of the different strands of DNA and allow them to be copied. These cancer treatment drugs are used to treat many types of leukemia, ovarian cancer, lung cancer and several others. Examples of this type of cancer treatment drug include topotecan and irinotecan.
Mitotic inhibitors are typically derived from plants and other natural products and help to stop mitosis and to interfere with enzymes that make the proteins needed for reproduction of cells. These drugs work only during the M phase of a cell cycle but do have the ability to damage cells in every phase. They are used typically to treat breast and lung cancer, leukemia and lymphomas. They do have the potential to cause peripheral nerve damage and are often limited in their dosage due to this side effect.
Corticosteroids such as prednisone, dexamethasone and others are also effective in treating different types of cancer such as multiple myeloma, leukemia and lymphoma. They are more commonly used to prevent side effects such as nausea and vomiting that is caused by chemotherapy as well as allergic reactions to chemotherapy.
There are many other types of drugs used for cancer treatment that do not fall into the chemotherapy drugs category. Many chemotherapy drugs work on the premise that cancer cells divide rapidly and the drugs work to slow or halt this cell growth. Other drugs have much less risk of side effects because they are targeted to work on cancer and not normal healthier cells.