Whenever somebody hears about chemotherapeutic drugs, they tend to think of the life-saving medicines that are responsible for curing multiple types of cancers. We never fail to get excited about the development of a new chemotherapeutic drug that could save even more lives. And rightly so!
What you won’t hear about is the safe handling of these drugs. Although doctors are the ones prescribing them, it is the nurses who have to manually handle and administer them to their patients. Anybody who has worked with anticancer drugs knows that there are two major risks involved: the health of the person receiving them, and the health of the person administering them.
Why Are Nurses at Risk When Handling Chemotherapeutic Drugs?
In the same way that someone can suffer from the effects of second-hand smoke, nurses can also be exposed to second-hand chemotherapy. It takes nothing more than an accidental spill on the skin due to improper handling, a small spray that happens upon puncturing the drug container, or an inhalation of fumes in order to experience these effects. This is how powerful these drugs can be, and it is also the reason why they can be so effective at treating the cancers that they target.
The reason these drugs are so toxic is because they target normal human cells in addition to cancer cells. Depending on the drug and its toxicity, there can be immediate acute effects that include nausea and irritation on the area of exposure. This is due to the drug’s rapid biological absorption that takes place upon contact with human skin. However, repeated exposure over long periods of time can eventually lead to chronic conditions that include organ failure due to toxicity and infertility. Some nurses will even find that they themselves have developed cancer because of the time that they spend handling and administering these drugs!
To make matters worse, these drugs are extremely difficult to clean up and can stay in a certain spot for months on end. When you think about how these drugs work, it is very easy to see that serious consequences arise for nurses that don’t handle these drugs properly!
It’s A Bigger Deal Than You Think.
One would think that these occurrences are rare, but a look at the data paints a more shocking picture. Almost 1 in 5 nurses have experienced chemotherapy drug exposure to their eyes or skin at some point while handling the skin. This doesn’t account for the nurses who leave their exposures unreported to the higher authorities in order to cover up for mishaps or mistakes.
The picture darkens for those nurses who are handling these drugs while pregnant. Long-term studies are showing that the children of these nurses are more likely be be born with cognitive and/or physiological abnormalities. That’s assuming that they make it through all three trimesters, because often times enough damage from chemotherapy drug exposure during the pregnancy can result in spontaneous abortion or malformation of the fetus!
How Can These Drugs Be Safely Handled?
The occurrences described above come primarily from the fact that safety guidelines for handling these drugs were not formally put it place. With the effects of long-term chemotherapy exposure on nurses’ health clearly established, hospitals are now taking proactive measures to ensure that the drugs can be safely handled with reduced chances of accidental exposure. Even in the case that a nurse comes into contact with the drug, they will be educated on protocols regarding what should be done next.
Although each drug will be handled differently, there are some general suggestions that nurses can follow. These include (but are not limited to) verifying correct drug orders with other nurses, wearing the proper protective equipment, educating oneself on proper protocols for handling the drug, knowing the correct procedure for waste disposals and spills, and informing fellow workers immediately of any accidental exposure to the drug. This will take extra time and resources to implement, but in the long run it will ensure the safety of nurses and reduce the incidence of exposure to toxic chemotherapy drugs. Some nurses may not be familiar with using these drugs, and they should not hesitate to seek assistance from experienced colleagues who have handled the drug before.
It is important to note that chemotherapy drugs should not be demonized in any way, shape, or form. They are effective treatments for the patients taking them and should be recognized as such. At the same time, it is equally important to recognize that nurses are putting their health at great risk when they do not handle the drugs properly. While it is inevitable that many nurses will have to handle these drugs at some point in their career, this does not mean that serious health risks should be the norm!