Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to treat cancer.  The drugs are often called “anticancer” drugs.

Normal cells grow and die in a controlled way.  Cancer occurs when cells become abnormal and keep dividing and forming more cells without control or order.  Anticancer drugs destroy cancer cells by stopping them form growing or multiplying at one or more points in their life cycle.  Because some drugs work better together than alone, chemotherapy may often consist of more than one drug.  This is called combination chemotherapy.

In addition to chemotherapy, other methods are sometimes used to treat cancer.  For example, your doctor may recommend that you have surgery to remove a tumor or relieve certain symptoms that may be caused by your cancer.  You may also receive radiation therapy, which is radiation treatment with high energy rays, to treat your cancer or its symptoms.  Sometimes your doctor may suggest a combination of chemotherapy, surgery, and/or radiation therapy, which is called adjuvant therapy.

 Depending on the type of cancer and its stage of development, chemotherapy can be used:

  • To cure cancer
  • To keep the cancer from spreading
  • To slow the cancer’s growth
  • To kill cancer cells that may have spread to other parts of the body from the original tumor
  • To relieve the symptoms that may be caused by the cancer

Your doctor decides which drug or drug will work best for you.  The decision depends on what kind of cancer you have, where it is, the extent of its growth, how it is affecting your normal body functions and your general health.

You may get chemotherapy in your doctor’s office, in a clinic, in the hospital’s oncology outpatient department, or in the hospital.  The choice of where you get chemotherapy depends on which drug or drugs you are getting, insurance policies, hospital policies, and your doctor’s preferences.

How often, and for how long, you get chemotherapy depends on the kind of cancer you have, the goals of the treatment, the drugs that are used, and how your body responds to the treatment.  You may get chemotherapy every day, every week, or every month.  Chemotherapy is often given in on-and-off cycles that include rest periods so that your body has a chance to build healthy new cells and regain its strength.  Your doctor should be able to estimate how long you will be getting chemotherapy.  Sometimes your doctor may delay a treatment based on the results of certain blood tests.

Because cancer cells grow and divide rapidly, anticancer drugs are made to kill fast growing cells.  Certain normal, healthy cells also multiply quickly, and chemotherapy can affect these cells too.  When it does, SIDE EFFECTS may result.  The fast growing, normal cells most likely to be affected are blood cells forming in the bone marrow, cells in the digestive tract, the reproductive system, and hair follicles.  Anticancer drugs can also damage cells of the heart, kidney, bladder, lungs, and nervous system.  The most common side effects of chemotherapy include nausea and vomiting, hair loss, and fatigue.  Other common side effects include an increased chance of bleeding, getting an infection, and developing anemia.  These side effects result from changes in blood cells during chemotherapy.  Every person doesn’t get every side effect, and some people get few, if any.  In addition, the severity of side effects varies greatly from person to person.  Whether you have a particular side effect, and how severe it will be, depends on the kind of chemotherapy you receive and how your body reacts.  Be sure to talk with your doctor or nurse about which side effects are most likely to occur with your chemotherapy, how long they might last, how serious they might be, and when you should seek medical attention for them.