Why More People Are Refusing Chemotherapy

If you have Internet access and keep up on the latest colon cancer news, you might be aware that there is a movement based on refusing chemotherapy as a treatment option. Both sides of this debate need to be examined closely. It's not only irresponsible, but it could be life-altering for someone to refuse a potentially curative treatment option based on horrifically frightening—and sometimes inaccurate—information coming from the lay writer on the web.

Nurse helping patient with chemotherapy
Furlong / Getty Images

The term chemotherapy encompasses a whole range of medications used specifically to eradicate cancer cells within your body. Most commonly, it's referred to as chemo for short. Chemo drugs target and destroy cells in your body that rapidly divide—or mutate—in the case of cancer cells. The side effects can be numerous, based on the fact that many cells rapidly divide in your body including those of the gastrointestinal tract, hair, skin, and nails. The very drugs meant to kill the cancerous cells also destroy these healthy cells, which results in chemotherapy's most common side effects including:

  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Hair loss
  • Skin dryness or rashes

Condemning personal experience stories are plastered over web pages and personal blogs, most of which exploit the fatigue, hair loss, and more distressing side effects that can be experienced while taking chemotherapy. Notice we said can be experienced—not everyone suffers the extreme side effects that are so commonly associated with chemo.

Likewise, the side effects and degree to which you experience them vary largely from person to person and are dependent on the type of chemotherapy drugs you receive. The oncologist is the expert on this topic—he or she would be glad to answer any concerns you have regarding side effects and can back up the education with evidence-based facts, not scare tactics. For instance, if you are very concerned about continuing to work during chemo you can ask your oncologist about the potential for fatigue as a side effect. He or she will most likely be able to give you a science-based percentage, a fact, of how many people like you suffer minor or major fatigue during treatment.

Claims That Chemo Is "Poison"

A moderate percentage of no-chemo proponents used the chemo-is-mustard-gas rationale for refusal. Although this point is partially based in fact, science has come leaps and bounds since those first experiments using mustard gas, or mustard nitrogen, to treat lymphoma back in the WWII era. Giving further—albeit overblown—credence to that argument is the fact that to this day there is still some use of mustard nitrogen in cancer treatment. A drug called Mustargen (mechlorethamine) is still used occasionally to treat other cancers, but not colorectal cancer.

Concerns About Chemo and Your Natural Defenses

A growing population of adults are choosing to refuse chemo is based on the way in which it works. Chemotherapy does not kill your immune system as claimed, but it can harm it temporarily. The potential for this side effect is well known and the oncologist will prepare for it and monitor your immune system closely throughout treatment. This is a large part of the reason why, if you do choose to elect chemotherapy, your blood will be closely monitored through tests during your treatment. This concern is not unfounded but it is debatable, as the effects on your immune system end shortly after the round of chemo does.

Chemo Is a Carcinogen

The argument that chemotherapy drugs can cause secondary tumors or potentially increase your risk of the recurrence of cancer is another frequently toted reason some people refuse chemo. Again, there is a small kernel of truth in part of this fear—for normal, healthy people chemotherapy drugs can be harmful. Doctors and nurses who deal with these drugs daily must take extra precautions to protect themselves from the side effects of chemo drugs.

Every person diagnosed with colorectal cancer has the right to refuse chemotherapy, but hopefully, it's done for the right reasons and the decision is based on sound research, thought and discussion.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the alternatives to chemotherapy?

    Depending on the type of cancer you have and the stage that it is at, you may qualify for one or a combination of other treatments, these include:

    • Hormone therapy
    • Hyperthermia
    • Immunotherapy
    • Photodynamic therapy
    • Radiation therapy
    • Stem cell transplant
    • Surgery 
    • Targeted Therapy
  • Are chemo drugs dangerous?

    Chemotherapy drugs are extremely powerful and hazardous. That’s good news if you’re killing cancer cells, but it also means caution is needed when handling the medication. Depending on the type of chemo you’re given and the form in which it’s administered, you may need to take precautions when handling oral medication, cleaning up IV or powdered drugs, and managing body fluids (urine, stool, vomit, etc.) in the hours after receiving chemo.

  • Are there natural ways to treat cancer?

    There are many claims about natural cures for cancer, from bee venom to yoga. While these options may support overall wellness and relieve side effects of medical treatments, there's no research showing alternative or natural treatments improve survival. However, your healthcare provider may work with you to set up an integrative medicine plan, which combines conventional with alternative treatments. These can include special diets, meditation, massage, and other approaches.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Side Effects of Cancer Treatment.

  2. Lessin SR, Duvic M, Guitart J, et al. Topical chemotherapy in cutaneous T-cell lymphoma: positive results of a randomized, controlled, multicenter trial testing the efficacy and safety of a novel mechlorethamine, 0.02%, gel in mycosis fungoides. JAMA Dermatol. 2013;149(1):25-32. doi: 10.1001/2013.jamadermatol.541

  3. Kocsis J. [Benefits of combining chemotherapy with immuno- oncology therapies or "Is it true that chemotherapy destroys the immune system?"]. Magy Onkol. 2019;63(3):202-207. 

  4. Boiano JM, Steege AL, Sweeney MH. Adherence to safe handling guidelines by health care workers who administer antineoplastic drugs. J Occup Environ Hyg. 2014;11(11):728-40. doi: 10.1080/15459624.2014.916809

  5. National Cancer Institute. Types of Cancer Treatment.

  6. American Cancer Society. Chemotherapy Safety.

  7. National Cancer Institute. Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

By Julie Wilkinson, BSN, RN
Julie Wilkinson is a registered nurse and book author who has worked in both palliative care and critical care.