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Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to fight disease. The term most often refers to drugs used to fight cancer. Sometimes it is called just “chemo."

Chemotherapy is one of the most significant advances in the history of medicine. For millions of people, it helps treat their cancer effectively, and they are able to enjoy full, productive lives, but it is not without risk. It works by killing fast-growing cancer cells, but it cannot tell the difference between a fast-growing cancer cell and a fast-growing healthy cell--such as those found in hair follicles, skin, bone marrow and other areas of your body. These healthy cells may be affected by the chemo, which can lead to side effects.

Support Along the Way

How Chemo Works

Chemotherapy is given by many routes. In the hospital, chemo will likely be given by the intravenous route, or “IV” for short. This means a thin plastic tube called a catheter will be placed in your vein and the chemo will be given through it.

Sometimes patients have long-term IV devices like a “port” or a “PICC.” If your doctor thinks one of these devices would be a good idea for you, you will receive education about it and given an opportunity to ask questions before it is placed. Receiving IV chemotherapy should not be painful. In fact, if you feel stinging, burning, coolness or numbness in the area of your IV you should tell your nurse immediately. Some chemotherapy takes just a few minutes to administer and sometimes it takes many hours. Others are given continuously over several days.

When chemotherapy is made up of more than one drug, it is called combination chemotherapy. Different drugs have different actions, and they can work together to kill more cancer cells and reduce the chance that your cancer may stop responding to a particular chemotherapy drug.

Sometimes chemotherapy is the only treatment you will need. Sometimes, it is used in addition to surgery or radiation therapy or with both. Here’s why:

  • Chemotherapy may be used to shrink a tumor before surgery or radiation therapy.
  • It may be used after surgery or radiation therapy to help destroy any remaining cancer cells.
  • It may be used with other treatments if your cancer returns.

Chemotherapy is given in cycles, made up of the days you receive your chemo along with rest periods. Rest periods are built into the chemo cycles so that your body can build healthy new cells and regain its strength. A cycle will generally contain more than one day of chemo followed by the rest period. For example, you may receive chemo every seven days for three weeks and then a week off before starting the next cycle. Your doctor will likely prescribe a number of cycles followed by testing to check how well the chemo is working.