Cancer patients have to face a lot of tough decisions, and one of the biggest ones is whether or not to get chemotherapy if it’s offered for their particular diagnosis. A lot of people struggle with this decision because they’re concerned about the side effects, which are admittedly pretty severe, but there’s one very big reason that some people decide against it: Studies have shown that it can actually trigger the spread of cancer into nearby areas of the body.
One study carried out by researchers from The Ohio State University showed how chemotherapy triggers the cellular responses that spur the spread. Previous studies showed that chemotherapy leads to cellular changes in breast cancer patients, so they decided to explore the effects that the very common frontline chemotherapy drug paclitaxel has on breast cancer patients. The researchers chose the lungs because they are the closest organ to the breasts.
They discovered that breast cancer patients who were given paclitaxel chemotherapy had overexpressed Atf3 genes, a transcription factor activated by stress. Those who did not get chemo didn’t have an overexpression in this gene. The gene causes damage in two ways. First, it distributes cancer cells throughout the lungs, and then it primes the area to boost the cells’ chances of surviving and thriving.
In other words, the chemotherapy had a carcinogenic effect on the body by activating this gene. The researchers were surprised just how much this drug seemed to make patients’ bodies conducive to cancer.
Study senior author Tsonwin Hai said: “That chemotherapy can paradoxically promote cancer progression is an emerging revelation in cancer research. However, a molecular-level understanding of this devastating effect is not clear.”
She added that she believes the process isn’t a passive one wherein cancer cells basically escape into the bloodstream thanks to leaky vessels. Instead, she believes it’s an active process involving a biological change that actually beckons the cancerous cells to escape into the patient’s blood.
She urged the medical community to keep an open mind about the double-edged sword that is chemotherapy; it may help treat cancer in some cases, she says, but it could also raise the chances of spreading it.
Past studies also point to chemotherapy’s ability to spread cancer
A different study found that even though some chemotherapy drugs might shrink tumors in the short term, they raise the chances the cancer cells will migrate to other parts of the body. At the same time, they might be triggering a system of repair that essentially allows them to grow back stronger.
This was the finding of a team of researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. They discovered that patients who were given two common chemotherapy drugs experienced an increase in the number of “doorways” in blood vessels that facilitated the spread of cancer throughout their bodies. The study was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Needless to say, this isn’t great news for women who are looking to treat breast cancer. Many would be willing to put up with side effects like nausea and hair loss, but chemotherapy in breast cancer patients has even been linked to brain damage. The fact that it could spread cancer makes it an even less attractive option. Treatment is a very personal decision, but it’s important to have all the facts before committing to something that could make the cancer get worse, not better.