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Medical Miracles: Chemotherapy


Lindsay Fuss, Class of 2015, is a Certified Nursing Assistant and plans on majoring in nursing in college. She hopes to eventually work in a hospital caring for oncology patients. She has had several family members with cancer and she hopes to be a part of the cure. 

The Revolution of Chemotherapy

Medical Miracle

Before the start of chemotherapy, cancer was a death sentence. There was no funding and almost no one was working on any type of solutuion, until the famous German Chemist, Paul Ehrlich in the early 1900s, decided to develop drugs to treat infectious diseases. He coined the word “chemotherapy” and defined it as the use of chemicals to treat disease. Cancer was still not a popular area of study until World War II. Gases were tested throughout the war and an accident that caused a spill of chemical mustards on troops from a bombed ship in Bari Harbor, Italy. The men who were there that day had noticeable reactions to the chemicals. Nitrogen mustard was the first try at a treatment, but unfortunately, it failed. It was not until 1958 that  a cancer had been cured using chemotherapy. The first cancer to be cured was choriocarcinoma. Oncology was not considered an actual specialty in its infancy and many brave men and women fought to find treatments and a cure. It took decades to be able to help patients recover, but since the discovery of chemotherapy, the death rates of cancer are decreasing and people are not necessarily being handed death sentences. Doctors and researchers are  finally receiving  the credit they deserve after years of being considered irrelevant in the medical field.

Learn more here--

Significant Discovery

Chemotherapy was not simply 'invented'. It took generations of doctors, successes, and failures to get the lifesaving treatment that is chemotherapy. 1945 sparked an interest in chemotherapy after the explosion of mustards in Italy. Nitrogen mustard was used on a non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma patient and there was improvement in this specific patient and others. Unfortunately, what seemed like a treatment, did not last long and left the scientific community bitter. In 1948, Dr. Sydney Farber was able to prove remission in leukemia of children using methotrexate.  Actinomysin D came from another World War II project. It showed significant tumor fighting properties and was used in pediatric tumors in the 1950s and 1960s. This sparked an interest in finding more cancer  fighting antibiotics.  In 1951, George Hitchings and Gertrude Elion developed developed 6-thioquanine and 6-mercaptopurine. These two drugs played a very important role in the treatment of acute leukemia. The first cancer to be cured using chemotherapy was the very rare choriocarcinoma in 1958 by Dr. Min Chiu Li.  In 1966, Dr. Charles Gordon Zubrod was the director of what is now the Developmental Therapeutics Pogram. This all happened when the Cancer Chemotherapy National Service Center was incorperated into the National Cancer Institute. In the 1960s, medical oncology was not a clinical specialty and people like Vince DeVita and Paul Calabresi who were chemotherapists had to work very hard to continue treating patients. Chemotherapists were considered unsuccessful in medicine and faced ridicule among peers. In 1971, the National Cancer Act was signed, which helped to further support the work of the National Cancer Institute. In 1973, medical oncology became an official subspecialty of internal medicine and chemotherapy as oncology's number one tool. The 1970s also brought with it combination chemotherapy. The use of chemotherapy with other treatments such as sugery or radiotherapy gave a patients treatments from more angles and gave people better chances of survival.The Special Virus Cancer Program that was started in 1964 was created and eventually the work done here founded oncogenes. The technology developed in the SVCP fueled the current work to sequence the genome. Cancer chemotherapy is curative in patients who have advanced disease including, Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Acute lymphoblastic and Acute myelogenous leukemia, Germ cell cancer, Wilm's Tumor, and Choriocarcinoma among others. Mortality rates have and are continuing to decline, in part because of prevention and early diagnosis and also because of the advancements in chemotherapy treatments and the inclusion of chemotherapy in treatments.

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Emerging Innovations

Chemotherapy is a constantly changing field of science and medicine. Researchers are now trying to experiment with the new chemotherapy drugs and how they should be administered. There is work being done to see if chemotherapy will be more successful in smaller doses over longer periods of time or continuously. One, if not the best, innovations to date is the use of targeted therapies. Targeted therapies attack a specific target on cancer cells. This treatment can be less harsh on cancer patients and it can be used alongside tradition chemotherapy treatments. Several targeted therapies are being researched and many are also already in use. Research is also focusing in on how to keep patient's diseases from becoming resistant to chemotherapy. When chemotherapy drugs are resisted, for now, doctors have to try to find another treatment for their patients. So many new drugs, protocols, and therapies are coming to light that clinical trials are becoming the most common way to try new chemotherapy protocols about how to administer chemotherapy, more appropriate doses, and how long of a period of treatment is appropriate.  Clinical trials are also testing new chemotherapy drugs along with older ones to see what kind of treatments they can combine to form better, stronger treatments.

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Social Impact

Positive and Negative Effects of Chemotherapy

Positive  Effects

Negative Effects


  • Providing treatment for cancer patients
  • Helping people to live longer, fuller lives
  • Giving patients with advanced stages of cancer the ability to be cured and be able to go into remission
  • Deaths from cancer have lowered 20% in the last two decades

  • Some patients have severe side effects from chemo treatments, including nausea, vomiting, and hair loss
  • Chemo can be extremely taxing on the body, lowering a patient’s immune system


  • Oncology has become a large field of study, providing many opportunities of study in nursing, pre-medicine, and pharmacology
  • Curing cancer has become a global goal bringing medical professionals from all over the world together

  • Before 1973, Chemotherapists and others studying cancer were not taken seriously and oncology was not considered a clinical specialty
  • Oncology can be a very hard field to work in because not every patient who receives chemo survives


  • Families/individuals have the right to make decisions for  how they want to treat their disease
  • There have been some patients who have seen an increase in appetite by smoking marijuana while suffering from chemotherapy side effects
  • There has been some success with other medications that are safe to take with chemotherapy to help a patient cope with side effects such as nausea






  • Chemotherapy can force families to make hard decisions because if a woman is pregnant she must choose between the pregnancy and chemotherapy treatments
  • Marijuana has side effects of its own, including heart palpitations, slow reaction time, mental and emotion effects, and cancer
  • There is currently no scientific proof that marijuana is a curable drug for cancer or that the benefits outweigh the negatives
  • Marijuana can mix badly with some chemotherapy drugs and could cause damage to a patient who mixes the two
  • Some religions ban the use of chemicals such as chemotherapy


  • Protocols are very specific and most of the time are very successful in helping a patient understand his/her disease, make decisions about his/her disease, and treat his/her disease
  • Chemotherapy drugs are highly regulated and go through a lot of testing before it can be approved
  • To try and make sure over/under dosing does not happen, there is a system of dose per weight calculation
  • Only staff who know how to give chemotherapy are allowed and a register is posted so that people have access to the specific staff for help





  • Errors in protocols
  • Lack of a system to keep track of reaction to treatments or other incidents
  • Over medicating patients with too much chemotherapy
  • Under medicating patients and not giving them enough
  • Too many people involved in the process


  • Chemo has created many jobs in the treatment of cancer through doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel, and through drug testing and development in pharmacology and labs
  • Hospitals like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital will help families and will not deny a patient based on race, religion, or the ability of a family to pay
  • Most health insurance policies, including Medicare, cover at least some costs

  • The cost of chemotherapy is very expensive and it makes it hard for low income and middle income countries to have access to such expensive treatments
  • Chemotherapy can lower the immune system, leaving some patients with long hospital stays to keep them away from illnesses
  • If people have terrible side effects from chemo, some people will have to pay more for drugs to subside their side effects
  • To reduce the costs to them, some private insurance companies  will choose not to pay for some chemotherapy drugs, even if the drug has been a  proven chemo drug.


Watch this video to learn about how chemotherapy affects cells and how chemotherapy works in order to stop cancer cells from growing.  

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Click here to head over to my glossary on the medical terminology/vocabulary, important people and groups, and bills-- 

What do you think?

KEEP Have you had Chemotherapy Treatments?
I have had chemotherapy treatments.: 0 votes (0%)
I know someone who has had chemotherapy treatments.: 1 votes (50%)
I have witnessed someone getting a chemotherapy treatment.: 0 votes (0%)
I have never known or witnessed anyone who has received chemotherapy treatments.: 1 votes (50%)
Total Votes: 2

Future Directions

I feel that oncology is moving in a great direction. Chemotherapy has become an important tool in the treatment of cancer and it has given people the chance to live fuller lives.  Through my research I have found and shared many examples of what a wonderful and lifesaving tool chemotherapy is. My hope for the future is that a cure will be found for every type of cancer there is. With more research focusing on the human genome and targeted therapies, there may come a day when people will no longer need chemotherapy because there will be less stressful ways of treating cancers. For now, however, chemotherapy is giving people a chance at life and helping children and adults to fight the disease that had stumped doctors and researchers for so many years.

Library Information and Media Center - Monona Grove High School - Monona, Wisconsin

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