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Chemotherapy is a drug treatment used to fight cancer with cell killing (or cytotoxic) chemicals. It may consist out of treatment with just one drug, or a variety of drugs (there are approximately 90 different chemotherapeutic drugs available and more are being developed). Furthermore, this type of therapy can be combined with other treatments such as radiotherapy, hormone therapy or surgery.
The drugs used in chemotherapy are considered to be quite hazardous for healthy people as a result of their toxicity, which can manifest itself in a couple of ways:
- Abnormal changes in DNA (the drugs are mutagenic) could potentially lead to cancer (the drugs are also carcinogenic).
- Altering the development of a fetus or embryo, causing birth defects (the drugs are teratogenic).
- Can locally cause skin irritation or damage.
So, it is important to establish strict chemotherapy safety precautions, both for the healthcare professionals and the patients and their families.
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Since healthcare professionals often come in contact with both patients undergoing chemotherapy and the chemotherapeutic drugs that are used, it is quite logical that they have to take several precautionary measures in consideration when administering the drugs:
- Special gloves, gowns and possibly goggles are worn when administering and preparing the drugs.
- The preparation of the medication takes place in areas with special ventilation systems to avoid inhaling or splashing of droplets.
- When handling urine or stool of a patient, special care for safety needs to be paramount.
- Special disposal procedures are implemented for the material that was used to prepare and/or mix the drugs.
- The gowns and gloves are disposed in special bags.
- In the case of visible leaks or spills, special precautions are taken.
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Patients and Their Families
There are chemotherapy safety precautions that have to be considered by the patients to protect themselves and their family. Most chemotherapeutic drugs take about 48 hours to be broken down by the patient’s body, that subsequently gets rid of these. There are several ways in which the patient can protect him/herself and his/her family.
Since most of the drugs will leave the patient’s body through the bodily fluids – urine, stool, tears, vomit or even blood – it is important to avoid contact with these. Some ways to do this are:
- Flushing the toilet twice.
- Always wash your hands with warm water and soap after using the toilet.
- After vomiting, make sure everything is clean.
- Caregivers should wear special gloves.
- If a caregiver comes in contact with the bodily fluids of the patient, the exposed area should be washed thoroughly and it should be mentioned to a doctor.
- Use a condom during sex as the drugs can be found in semen and vaginal secretions.
- Clothes or sheets that have bodily fluids on them should be washed twice in the machine (not by hand).
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When all these safety precautions are taken into account, both the healthcare professionals and the patients and their families should be safeguarded from the harmful effects of chemotherapeutic drugs.
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American Cancer Society: http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/TreatmentTypes/Chemotherapy/ChemotherapyPrinciplesAnIn-depthDiscussionoftheTechniquesanditsRoleinTreatment/chemotherapy-principles-safety-for-health-care-professionals
Cancer Research UK: http://www.cancerhelp.org.uk/about-cancer/treatment/chemotherapy/having/iv-chemotherapy#safety
Cleveland Clinic: http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/bone_marrow_transplantation/hic_chemotherapy_precautions_during_and_after_treatment.aspx
Womer, R.B.; Tracy, E.; Soo-Hoo, W.; Bickert, B.; DiTaranto S. & Barnsteiner, J.H. (2002). Mulitdisciplinary Approach to Chemotherapy Safety: Rebuilding Processes and Holding the Gains. Journal of Clinical Oncology 24, 4705 – 4712.