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Kate Middleton news: How preventive chemotherapy takes a toll on the body

Catherine Middleton, Princess of Wales, is undergoing preventive chemotherapy after cancer was discovered following a major abdominal surgery in January. Cancer specialists say the treatment can take a toll on the human body, which likely explains Catherine’s weekslong absence from the public eye.

“I often tell my patients that we are going to get you through this, and this is going to be manageable, but it’s no joke,” Vancouver-based medical oncologist Sharlene Gill told CTVNews.ca. “This is a full-time commitment, and it’s not easy, so very understandable if you wanted to sort of take a step back and really focus on this.”

Gill is also a medical professor at the University of British Columbia and the president of the Canadian Association of Medical Oncologists. She says side effects from preventive chemotherapy commonly include fatigue, nausea, gastrointestinal upset and immune system suppression.

“It’s a treatment that is given after the definitive surgery to remove all known cancer,” Gill said by phone on Friday. “So it is done with the intent that someone is now surgically cancer-free, and the goal of chemotherapy is to keep the cancer away and reduce future risk of cancer recurrence.”

Also known as adjuvant chemotherapy, treatment is usually administered intravenously and generally occurs in cycles over a period of three to six months. It can also be administered orally. Oncology refers to the study and treatment of cancer.

“People kind of feel wiped out after a cycle of cancer treatment,” Toronto-based radiation oncologist Dr. Derek Tsang told CTVNews.ca. “It repeats every two to four weeks: so you get the chemo, the patient feels not great, recovers, and you get the next one.”

Tsang practises at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto and is an associate professor in the University of Toronto’s oncology department. He explains that preventive chemotherapy targets residual cancer cells that may be lingering in the body, and that doctors will be use blood tests and surveillance imaging to monitor the treatment’s effectiveness and ensure nothing is growing.

“My hope would be that she gets her chemotherapy, which reduces her risk of tumour recurrence, and that could be it,” Tsang told CTVNews.ca by phone on Friday. “The main three treatments for cancer are: surgery, which she’s had; chemotherapy, which she’s getting; and then radiation therapy, which in many circumstances can also reduce the chance of tumours growing back.”

In a statement released Friday, Catherine, 42, said she was in the early stages of treatment, but did not disclose what type of cancer she is facing.

“In January, I underwent major abdominal surgery in London and at the time, it was thought that my condition was non-cancerous,” Catherine said. “The surgery was successful. However, tests after the operation found cancer had been present.”

Cancers found in the abdomen could include those affecting the stomach, liver, pancreas, colon or reproductive organs.

“We know that cancer is common; we believe it’s not as common in people of Kate’s age,” Gill said. “I think that the fact that she has come out and shared her diagnosis just raises awareness to the reality that this can happen, and we do need to be aware and mindful and vigilant for symptoms, and get screened whenever possible.”

“I wish Her Royal Highness the best in her cancer journey,” Tsang added. “It’s a tough journey for a lot of our patients that we see day-to-day in practice, and I hope she makes a full recovery.”

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