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From World War I Horror to Cancer Treatment Breakthrough: The Remarkable Journey of Chemotherapy

A century ago, a world gripped by the horrors of a catastrophic war also bore witness to the emergence of a devastating weapon – mustard gas. This man-made chemical warfare agent, with its yellow or brown hue, unleashed unimaginable suffering on soldiers and civilians alike. Its effects were nothing short of demonic, causing blisters, destruction of blood cells, convulsions, and even death. 

Yet, from this malevolent creation arose an unexpected saviour – chemotherapy, the revolutionary treatment against cancer. 

Continue reading to learn more about the history of chemotherapy.

What is mustard gas, and how did it kill people?  

Sulfur mustard, known as mustard gas, is a man-made chemical warfare agent that is either yellow or brown in colour. 

Mustard gas’s malevolence lay in its ability to indiscriminately ravage the human body. What made it nerve-racking was that there was no point in wearing a face mask. Its insidious entry could occur through inhalation, skin contact, or contaminated food and water, leading to symptoms that often manifested after a cruel 24-hour delay. This chemical horror was wielded during World War I, earning the conflict the moniker “Chemist’s War” due to its widespread use of toxic gases. 

World War I, the scuffle between two coalitions, the Allies and the Central Powers, also saw the usage of various chemical weapons, including mustard gas. The initial usage of mustard gas was first reported in Belgium in 1917. It left a lot of soldiers and civilians suffering from blisters, blindness, wheezing, coughing, and eventually death due to respiratory failure in the trenches. People suffer from these symptoms and probably die after four-six weeks, making it such a horrifying situation to be in. 

What led to the development of cancer drugs from mustard gas?  

Decades later, amidst the chaos of World War II, scientists turned their attention to countering mustard gas. This quest led them down an unexpected path as they uncovered its potential for combating a different enemy – cancer.

Cancer is a condition that sees uncontrollably cell division leading to the accumulation of a mass of abnormal cells, called a tumour. This tumor has the potential to expand, encroach upon neighboring lymph nodes and blood vessels, and even journey to remote corners of the body, including the human brain, where it can wreak havoc.

Not too long ago, cancer was often viewed as an “ultimate verdict,” seemingly inescapable, unless the hands of medical experts could skillfully remove an operable tumour. Yet, amid this daunting reality, a community of dedicated scientists toiled tirelessly, fueled by an unwavering determination to discover a viable treatment for this formidable disease. Their collective efforts held the promise of transforming the landscape of cancer care and offering newfound hope to those in need.

At Yale University, researchers Louis S. Goodman and Alfred Gilman explored derivatives of mustard gas, particularly nitrogen mustard, discovering its remarkable ability to combat lymphoma. Their breakthrough marked the birth of chemotherapy. Prior to that, Dr Eward Krumbhaar, in 1919, documented the mustard gas’s effects on bone marrow and blood cell count. 

Unlike its gruesome predecessor, chemotherapy was a calculated assault on cancer cells. Later clinical trials on a 48-year-old terminally ill cancer patient revealed it’s effects on cancer. His cancer disappeared, but it reappeared later on, killing him. 

The study related to the effects of nitrogen mustard was later published in The Journal of the American Medical AssociationThe more refined and developed versions of nitrogen mustard became the drugs that were used for chemotherapy. 

What were the later chemotherapy developments?

Chemotherapy has become commercially available for cancer patients since the late 1940s. Today, there are over 100 chemotherapy drugs commercially available for cancer patients. 
Initial cancer treatment involved the surgical removal of the cancer-affected areas, where – as mentioned in the above paragraph – only those patients with cancers that were small and localised could be saved. Cancer disease is characterised by a scenario where the cells can break away from it’s point of origin and spread to other parts of the human body, a condition called metastasis. 

Even if a tumour is surgically removed, cancer cells that have broken away and entered the lymph nodes or bloodstream can still spread to other parts and cause damage there. Treatment processes where cancer in the bloodstream is destroyed are also essential. 
Apart from destroying the cancer cells, chemotherapy drugs can also destroy the cancer cells present in the bloodstream. This treatment process is called adjuvant therapy, and it is given after surgery or radiation. Adjuvant therapy was tested in breast, colon and testicular cancer patients. 

The biggest challenge was treating blood cancer. Unlike other forms of cancer where the tumour grows in one spot, blood cancer is a condition where the abnormal RBC, WBC or platelets are released into the human body due to the abnormal cell division in the bone marrow or lymphatic system. Therefore, blood cancer was regarded as an immediate death sentence.

The early 20th century saw research where conditions like leukaemia and lymphoma responded well to chemotherapy drugs. A study published in Nature highlighted the chemotherapy’s effect on cancer cells, and later research showed successful treatment of aggressive cancers like chronic lymphocytic leukaemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

The success of chemotherapy: patients managed by CancerMitr

Many people decline chemotherapy due to concerns about side effects like loss of hair, nausea and vomiting, exhaustion, and mood fluctuations. Individuals often discontinue cancer treatment after surgery, but oncologists prescribe adjuvant therapy to prevent cancer from spreading.

Chemotherapy has adverse effects, but its effectiveness is unquestionable. The CancerMitr team has assisted hundreds of cancer patients. One of our patients, who had squamous cell carcinoma of the skin, saw a remarkable improvement after treatment. The 53-year-old patient had a tennis ball-sized tumour on his neck, but it shrank to the size of a small marble ball after one round of chemotherapy. 

Another stage IV colon cancer patient was declared cancer-free after eight rounds of chemotherapy. This was after the diagnosis suggested that the patient didn’t have that long to live.

Read: 10 ways to manage chemotherapy side effects 

The side effects of the chemotherapy process can be managed effectively with the help of various supportive therapy processes like diet and intermittent fasting, ozone therapy, physiotherapy, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, acupressure, medications, etc. 

A stage III pancreatic cancer patient showed significant improvement after nine cycles of chemotherapy and underwent supportive therapies like ozone treatment to deal with side effects. He didn’t experience any severe side effects whenever he underwent ozone therapy, especially hair loss. 

In conclusion,

Scientists are working hard to find better treatments for cancer, including ways to improve chemotherapy. In the near future, we might see new discoveries like a vaccine that works really well or a medicine that doesn’t make people feel sick.

Finding cancer early and getting treatment quickly are big advantages. When cancer is caught early and is still small, there’s a very good chance of getting better—between 92% and 100% chance! So, finding it sooner rather than later is really important.

The goal is not only to find better ways to fight cancer but also to make the process simpler and more comfortable for everyone.

Looking for chemotherapy?  

CancerMitr provides a holistic plan to tackle cancer-related challenges, from discovery to recovery. We provide diagnosis packages, treatment plans and support therapy options to help patients cope with side effects. 

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