What is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to destroy cancer cells. More than half of all people treated for cancer receive chemotherapy and many different types are available. 

Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment. This means that it can destroy cancer cells almost anywhere in your body. Chemotherapy is most effective against rapidly dividing cells, like cancer. However, healthy, normal cells can also be damaged by chemotherapy. 

Side Effects

Each patient has a unique response to chemotherapy. Side effects will also vary depending on which chemotherapy drug or drug combination you receive, as well as the dose of your drugs, and the frequency of your chemotherapy treatments.

Side effects associated with chemotherapy often result from the damage of healthy cells. Some examples are damage to: the cells in your mouth (mouth sores), hair follicles (hair loss), and bone marrow (decreased numbers of blood cells). Because previously healthy cells usually repair themselves after chemotherapy, many side effects are temporary and resolve themselves soon after treatment stops. 

If chemotherapy side effects are significant enough to disrupt your treatment and require treatment dose reductions or delays, it is important that you work closely with your oncology care team to manage problems so you can “stay on course” for the best treatment results. There are several supportive therapies that can lessen the side effects of chemotherapy. 

Understanding what you can do to proactively manage any side effect will help you feel more control over your wellbeing and your treatment. 

How Is Chemotherapy Given?

Chemotherapy drugs or combinations are given in the sequence that has been proven to be most effective for a particular type and stage of cancer. 

Chemotherapy may be given: 
  • Intravenously (through a vein)
  • In pill form (by mouth)
  • Through an injection (a shot) applied directly on the skin into the area around the tumor, or placed directly into the tumor site. 
  • Most often, chemotherapy is administered in an outpatient clinic on a regular schedule for a limited period of time. Occasionally, patients may receive a prescription for a chemotherapy medication to take at home, while other patients receive chemotherapy in a hospital. 

Questions to ask your Oncologist about Chemotherapy: 

  • What are the names of the chemotherapy drug(s) I will be receiving? 
  • How will I get these drugs (in an IV or a pill)? 
  • How much time is there between treatments? 
  • How long does each treatment last? 
  • Should I plan to have help driving me to and from treatment appointments? 
  • What side effects should I expect and how will we manage them? 
  • Are there long term side effects that I should consider (i.e.: related to fertility or other issues)? 

Always make sure to ask questions and gain as much information as you can in order to make the proper treatment decision.  And, if you are unsure or unclear, consult another doctor for a second opinion.

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