A. EC stands for epirubicin (Ellence) and cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), the two drugs that will team up to attack your cancer cells. (Don’t worry, there won’t be a written quiz on this; all you have to remember is EC.)
What exactly do these drugs do? Well, each attacks your cancer cells in a slightly different way. First off, “E” has lots of tricks up its sleeve. It stops the enzymes that support cell reproduction; it damages the cell by altering its membranes; and it stops cell reproduction by attaching itself to the cell’s DNA, which then gets tangled up and is unable to replicate itself (pretty sneaky, huh?). “C” sticks to the cell’s DNA, like “E,” preventing it from replicating. And that, really, is what killing cancer is all about: stop the cells from dividing, and you stop the cancer.
Q: And how long does EC chemotherapy treatment take?
A. Though EC delivery methods and schedules vary, as the pharmacology is constantly changing, the majority of women being treated with EC get it intravenously, every three weeks, for four to six treatments. It takes about three to four months to complete an EC chemotherapy regimen, barring any complications that slow down the process. And the EC treatment itself takes between one and two hours. Add to that the ride to and from the hospital, the blood tests before (to make sure your white cells are up to the battle), and the inevitable waiting around, and you’re looking at up to half a day each time. Bring stuff to distract or amuse yourself: books, knitting, a friend or family member. You don’t want to just sit around and twiddle your thumbs the whole time.
Q. You mentioned complications…
A. You'll have blood drawn first before you start each EC treatment. One of chemo’s side effects is lowering your white blood cell count; i.e., killing off some of the cells that help fight infection. If your doctor decides your white cell count isn’t high enough to keep you healthy, he or she will delay your next EC chemo treatment until your white cells have built themselves back up to an acceptable level.
Q. Well, three to four months… OK, but next question: just how miserable are the side effects of EC chemo going to make me?
A. It depends. Every woman has a different reaction to chemo. Some women breeze through it with very little discomfort; for others, it’s very challenging. Here’s a roundup of the main side effects you MAY experience. Remember, you may face very few, or possibly all of these. Please don’t look for trouble, but you may as well understand what MIGHT happen.
• Hair loss: “C” thins your hair, but “E” really does a number on it. Yup, you’re going to lose it: not just the hair on your head, but probably a lot of your body hair, too (pubic, under your arms, legs, perhaps your eyelashes and eyebrows…) Losing the hair on your head, obviously, is what you’ll find most disturbing; but there’s lots you can do to cope, including a wig, head scarves or hats, or just saying the heck with it and going bald. Believe me, waiting to lose your hair (it’ll take 3 to 4 weeks, probably, after your first treatment) is the toughest part. Once it’s gone, you just deal. And, just think: you can put away the safety razor for months. No more shaving your legs or under your arms!