Childhood Cancer ~ A General Guide for Parents Part V (ii): Chemotherapy



In Part 1 of this series we explained that this series of articles is not meant to be medical advice, but a guide that may help you as a parent of a newly diagnosed child with cancer cope just a bit better. Information is knowledge, and never more so than when you are dealing with childhood cancer!

These articles are meant to help you be the key part of your child’s treatment that you will need to be. Take what works for you according to your situation and your child’s temperament, personality, fears, strengths, and how they deal with adversity, and leave what does not pertain to your situation.

Part 5 will deal with Different Types of Treatment and Possible Side-Effects of that treatment. As this is quite a long section, I will split it into 5(i) Surgery 5(ii) Chemotherapy 5(iii) Radiation Therapy 5(iv) Immunotherapy and Bone Marrow and Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Transplants.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine treatment (CAM) is very involved and will contain a lot of information, so that will be dealt with separately in Part 6 of this series of articles.




Childhood Cancer Treatment

Treatment for childhood cancer is not the same for every patient; a treatment plan is drawn up for each individual according to various factors.

Your child’s doctor and oncology treatment team will collaborate to draw up a treatment plan based on the type of cancer, the stage of the disease, your child’s general health, your child’s age, and various other factors.

Once the team has all the facts, a detailed treatment plan will be drawn up, outlining the exact treatment your child will receive, how often the treatment will be given, and how long the treatment will last.

Treatment plans are strictly individualised, so even children with the same type of cancer may not get exactly the same type of treatment. The oncology team will monitor your child’s response to the treatment, and may change the treatment plan if it seems that the treatment is not working effectively; they may even change the type of treatment completely.

Cancer is not an easy disease to treat, and unfortunately some of the treatments used cause unpleasant or unwanted side-effects such as hair loss, nausea, and diarrhoea. Side effects happen because unfortunately some of the cancer treatments not only kill the cancer cells but can also damage some of the healthy cells.

Bear the following in mind as your child starts their cancer treatment:

  • Your child’s doctor will plan the treatment so that your child has as few side effects as possible;
  • The type of side effects your child experiences and how bad they are will depend on the kind of drug used, the dosage given, and the way your child’s body reacts;
  • There are various ways to lessen your child’s side effects. Talk to the treatment team about things that can be done before, during, and after treatment to make your child more comfortable;
  • Sometimes the team may decide to lower the treatment dosage slightly to help lessen or even eliminate unpleasant side effects. This will generally not make the treatment less able to destroy cancer cells or hurt your child’s chances of recovery; and
  • Most side effects go away soon after treatment ends.

Not every child will suffer side-effects, and some children get very few. Side-effects will differ from child to child, even those who are receiving the same treatment. Your child’s doctor will be able to tell you what side-effects you can expect your child to possibly have based on the treatment plan, and how to deal with them should they occur.

In the previous article we dealt with surgery and all it entails; this article will deal with Chemotherapy as a treatment for your child’s cancer and all it entails.




Chemotherapy involves the use of anti-cancer drugs to fight the cancer your child has. Chemotherapy is what is referred to as “systematic therapy” which means that the drugs are introduced into the bloodstream so that it can flow throughout the whole body, seeking out and killing cancer cells wherever they may be.

Some anti-cancer drugs work better in conjunction with others, so chemotherapy sometimes consists of a combination of drugs; this is known as combination chemotherapy.

Depending on which type of cancer your child has and which drugs the oncologist decides would be best, chemotherapy may be given in one or more of the following ways:

  • By Mouth (oral medication) – The drugs are swallowed in liquid or pill form. If your child has problems swallowing pills, the pills can be broken into smaller pieces or crushed and mixed with applesauce, jam, pudding, or any other food that your child likes;
  • Intramuscular Injection (IM) – The drugs are injected by needle into the muscle. Your child will know it as a “shot”;
  • Intrathecal Injection (IT) – The drugs are injected by needle into the spinal fluid
  • Intravenously (IV) – The drugs are injected by needle into a vein or into an IV line;
  • Subcutaneous Injection (SC) – The drugs are injected by needle just below the skin. Your child will also know this as a “shot”;

Although it may be possible for your child to receive chemotherapy treatments at home, he or she will probably need to go to the hospital or doctor’s office to receive IV drugs or injections. Depending on the medicine, your child may need to stay in the hospital, perhaps overnight or longer.

Oral Chemotherapy

When possible, involve your child in this type of treatment. A good way to do this may be to keep a special calendar to help them track when medicine should be taken.

Older children, particularly teenagers, may want to be responsible for taking and keeping track of their medication themselves. This might be a way for them to feel less helpless and like they are a bit more in control of their own body. You will still need to make sure that the medicine is being taken as ordered by the oncologist.

Notify the doctor immediately if your child misses any doses of medication or if he or she vomits them up.

Intravenous Chemotherapy

Intravenous Chemotherapy is when the drug is administered via a thin needle into the vein, usually in the hand or arm. In babies and very small children, the needle may be placed in a vein in the scalp.

Getting chemotherapy does not usually hurt, but it may be painful when the IV needle is put in, and the drugs may cause a burning feeling. If the drug leaks from the vein, it could burn the skin, so great care must be taken to make sure the IV line is firmly in place.

IV chemotherapy can also be given through a catheter. In this instance, the catheter will remain in place during the course of treatment so that the chemotherapy drugs can be given as per schedule without having to place a needle into the vein over and over again.

Generally, central venous catheters are used for this type of treatment. The catheter is usually put into a large vein in the chest by making a small incision (cut) near the collarbone, while the child is under either general or local anaesthesia.

Two types of central venous catheters are commonly used:

  • External Venous Catheter: In this type of catheter, the plastic tube extends outside the body;
  • Port-a-Cath Catheter: This is a type of catheter that is placed under the skin; a needle is placed into it each time the drugs are administered. This type of catheter is usually more appealing to teenagers and is best suited to families who cannot take care of a catheter that needs special daily care.

In addition to the chemotherapy drugs, pain medicine and blood transfusions can be given through the catheter, and blood can also be drawn through the catheter.

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Side effects can occur when the anticancer drugs affect not only the cancer cells but the healthy cells as well. Different chemotherapy drugs produce different side-effects.

Ask your doctor or nurse what side effects your child is most likely to have, and when they are likely to occur.

Side effects are either acute (they happen right away) or delayed (they happen days, weeks, or years after chemotherapy).
The most common side effects of chemotherapy are listed in the following table.


Remember, if you are not sure of anything, speak to a professional on your child’s oncology treatment team; they will be only too glad to help give you information or allay any fears you or your child may have regarding the treatment.

You are not alone in this; there are many individuals out there able and willing to lend a hand, some support, or even just listen – do not be afraid to reach out for help!

Do some research on the internet, reach out to an organisation like Little Fighters Cancer Trust for a bit of support and information and/or access to resources that will help you find out more and make an informed decision regarding your child’s treatment.


Part V (iii) of this series will deal with “Radiation Therapy

About LFCT

CHILDHOOD CANCER and CHILDHOOD CANCER AWARENESS Little Fighters Cancer Trust is a non-profit Childhood Cancer support organisation that offers support and aid to Children with Cancer and their families. When a child is diagnosed with cancer it affects the whole family. One of the parents, usually the mother, must give up their job to care for the child and this creates financial problems for the family. In South Africa especially the majority of these families are not well-to-do; many of them are rural. A diagnosis of cancer can wipe out any family’s finances, let alone a poor family. The costs of special medications, special diets, hospital stays, transport to and from the hospital or clinic and accommodation and food costs for the mother who spends most of the time at her child’s bedside are astronomical. These are the people and problems that fall through the cracks, and these are the people that Little Fighters Cancer Trust has pledged to help in any way possible. LFCT takes a holistic approach to assisting the Children with Cancer and their Families, with the main aim to be the preservation of individual dignity and pride. Little Fighters Cancer Trust also focuses on promotion and advocacy of National Childhood Cancer Awareness in an effort to increase awareness of Early Warning Signs of Childhood Cancer. This would result in earlier diagnosis, giving the Child with Cancer more of a chance at Treatment and Survival. See "About" for more Background info

Posted on 26 October, 2014, in Articles, Blog and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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