What Is Chemotherapy?
an aggressive form of chemical drug therapy meant to destroy rapidly growing
cells in the body. It’s usually used to treat cancer, as cancer cells grow and
divide faster than other cells. A doctor who specializes in cancer treatment is
known as an oncologist.
They’ll work with you to come up with your treatment plan.
Chemotherapy is often used in combination with other
therapies, such as surgery, radiation, or hormone therapy. This depends on:
- the stage and type of cancer you have
- your overall health
- previous cancer treatments you’ve had
- the location of the cancer cells
- your personal treatment preferences
It’s considered a systemic treatment, which means it affects the entire body.
While chemotherapy has been proven to effectively attack
cancer cells, it can cause serious side effects that can severely impact your
quality of life. You should weigh these side effects against the risk of not
getting treatment when deciding if chemotherapy is right for you.
Why Chemotherapy Is Used
Chemotherapy is primarily used to:
- lower the total number of cancer cells in your
- reduce the likelihood of cancer spreading
- shrink tumor size
- reduce current symptoms
If you’ve undergone surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, such
as a lumpectomy for breast cancer, your oncologist may recommend that
you have chemotherapy to ensure that any lingering cancer cells are killed as
Chemotherapy is also used to prepare you for other
treatments. It could be used to shrink a tumor so it can be surgically removed
or to prepare you for radiation therapy.
In the case of late-stage cancer, chemotherapy may help
Besides treatment for cancer, chemotherapy may be used to prepare
people with bone marrow diseases
for a bone marrow stem cell treatment and it may be used for immune system disorders. Doses much
lower than those used to treat cancer can be used to help disorders in which
the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells, like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.
Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is designed to kill cells that divide quickly.
While cancer cells are these kinds of cells, other cells in your body divide
quickly as well. Cells in the following areas can be adversely affected:
- lining of your intestinal tract
Because of this, the side effects of chemotherapy include:
- easy bruising and excessive bleeding
- dry mouth
- mouth sores
- a fever
- hair loss
- a loss of appetite
- weight loss
- pain from nerve damage
- memory problems
- concentration problems
- skin changes
- nail changes
- sexual changes
- fertility changes
Your doctor can help you manage these side effects with
medications, lifestyle tips, and more.
Most side effects of chemotherapy subside when treatment is
over. There’s the risk of long-lasting effects that may develop even years
after the treatment, depending on the type of chemotherapy used.
These effects could include damage to the:
- reproductive organs
There’s also the chance of developing a second cancer as a
result of chemotherapy. Before beginning treatment, talk to your doctor about the
possible risks and what symptoms you should be aware of.
How to Prepare for Chemotherapy
As chemotherapy is a serious treatment for a serious
condition, it’s important to plan ahead before beginning therapy. Your doctor
and hospital staff will help you anticipate the potential problems associated
Before you begin therapy, you’ll undergo a series of tests
to help determine if you’re healthy enough for chemotherapy. This will include
examinations of your heart and blood tests to determine the health of your
liver. These tests can also help guide your doctor in deciding which types of
chemotherapy to use in your treatment.
Your doctor may also recommend that you visit your dentist
before beginning treatment. As chemotherapy affects your body’s ability to
heal, any infection in your gums or teeth could potentially spread throughout
Your doctor may install a port if you’re getting
chemotherapy through an intravenous (IV) line. A port is a device that’s implanted in your body, typically in your
chest near your shoulder. This allows for easier access to your veins and is
less painful. During each treatment, the IV will be inserted into your port.
Consider these preparation tips for chemotherapy treatment:
- Make arrangements for work. Most people can work
during chemotherapy, but you may want to be put on a lighter workload until you
know what types of side effects you may be experiencing.
- Prepare your house. Do laundry, stock up on
groceries, and do other tasks you may be too weak to do after your first
- Arrange for any help you might need. Getting a
friend or family member to help with household chores or caring for pets or
children can be extremely beneficial.
- Anticipate side effects. Ask your doctor what
side effects you may experience and how to plan accordingly. If infertility
could be a side effect and you want to conceive a child, you may want to store and
freeze sperm, eggs, or fertilized embryos. You may want to purchase head covers
or wigs if hair loss is likely.
- Begin therapy or join a support group. Talking
to someone outside of your family and circle of friends about what you’re going
through can help you remain optimistic. It can also help calm any fears you may
have about treatment.
How Chemotherapy Is Performed
You and your doctor can work together to consider all
variables and determine the best course of your treatment. Chemotherapy is
typically given in pill form or directly into veins by injection or an IV. In
addition to these two forms, chemotherapy may also be administered in several
Chemotherapy delivery options include the following:
can be delivered directly into the tumor, depending on the tumor’s
location. If you undergo surgery to remove the tumor, your doctor can implant
slow-dissolving discs that release medications over time.
- Some skin cancers can be treated with
- Chemotherapy can be delivered to a specific part
of the body through localized treatment, such as directly into the abdomen,
chest, central nervous system, or into the bladder through the urethra.
- Some types of chemotherapy can be taken by mouth
- Liquid chemotherapy drugs can be delivered in
single shots, or you can have a port installed where a needle is inserted for
each treatment. The infusion method with a port only involves pain at the
injection site during the first visit, but the port needle can loosen depending
on your level of activity.
Where you receive treatment depends on your chosen delivery
method. For instance, if you use creams or pills, you can give yourself
treatments at home. Other procedures are usually performed at a hospital or a cancer
Your chemotherapy schedule, as in how often you receive
treatment, will be customized for you. It can be changed if your body doesn’t
handle the treatment well, or it can be increased or decreased depending on how
well the cancer cells react to treatments.
Your doctor and cancer treatment team will regularly monitor
the effectiveness of your treatments. These will include imaging techniques,
blood tests, and possibly more. Your doctor can adjust your treatment at any
The more you share with your doctor about how chemotherapy
is affecting you, the better your treatment experience will be. You’ll want to tell
them about any side effects or treatment-related problems you’re having so that
they can make adjustments to your treatment if necessary.