WARNING: Chemotherapy contributes to mitochondrial dysfunction

It’s hard to say what is more upsetting: the sheer number of new breast cancer cases expected in the U.S. in 2018 – 268,670 – or the fact that so many of these cases will be treated using dangerous surgeries and toxic chemotherapy.

Whether you have firsthand experience with it or not, you’ve certainly heard that chemotherapy is no walk in the park, but most people view it as a necessary evil in trying to get rid of cancer. When faced with the prospect of losing your life, the idea of being nauseous for weeks and possibly losing your hair seems like a reasonable trade-off. Unfortunately, chemotherapy isn’t just unpleasant; it can be downright dangerous and even cause secondary cancers to arise.

The main reason it can be so risky is because it destroys mitochondrial health. As abstract as that might sound, it can have serious repercussions: Without healthy mitochondria, we won’t have the energy to stay alive.

It makes sense when you think about it; one of the top complaints of people undergoing chemotherapy is fatigue and weakness. While chemotherapy drugs may be capable of killing cancer cells, they also damage the function of healthy cells at the same time.

In a study that was carried out by researchers from the University of Vermont, the muscle fibers in women who had cancerous tumors removed via surgery followed by chemotherapy were compared to a healthy control group. Those who had undergone the treatments had fewer mitochondria and a smaller cross-sectional muscle fiber area, which is an indicator of muscle loss.

Moreover, when the researchers introduced the popular chemotherapy drugs paclitaxel and doxorubicin into muscle cells in mice, it led to atrophy, reductions in mitochondrial numbers, and greater oxidative stress. Although there could be ways that scientists might be able to combat these negative effects, wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to avoid such risky interventions in the first place?

Other dangers of chemotherapy

Another reason patients might want to explore all their options carefully before signing up for chemotherapy is the fact that it can increase the growth of cancer. A study in the journal Nature showed that in addition to promoting the spread of cancer cells by damaging healthy cells surrounding tumors, chemotherapy prompts cancer cells to build full resistance to the treatment and become “super” cancer cells. Not unlike superbugs or superweeds, these cancer cells don’t respond to any form of chemotherapy, not even the most aggressive types, which makes cancer even more deadly.

In addition, chemotherapy has been shown to raise people’s chances of suffering heart failure. In studies of survivors of lymphoma and breast cancer, researchers found that those who had undergone chemotherapy were more than three times more likely to have heart failure, and the risk persisted two decades after their course of chemotherapy had ended. Higher doses of chemotherapy directly correlated with the higher heart failure risk.

Unfortunately, many patients feel as though they have very few options when it comes to cancer treatment. It’s a deeply personal decision, of course, and one that should be researched very thoroughly – but it pays to get information from several sources rather than just your oncologist. In some cases, cannabis or vitamin C, for example, could prove helpful. Should you decide to go ahead with an intervention like chemotherapy, it’s also worth looking into potential ways of mitigating the havoc it wreaks on your body. For example, switching to organic food, taking up yoga, and exercising regularly can help give your body a fighting chance.

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