When a normal cell becomes cancerous and grows and divides rapidly and uncontrollably, one way to stop this uncontrolled growth is by targeting the disease at the cellular level using chemotherapy. Because this is often a standard approach for cancer treatment, it's important that you understand chemotherapy's risks and effectiveness as you decide if chemotherapy is the right treatment for you.
What is chemotherapy?
Sometimes called chemo, chemotherapy is a general term to describe medications designed to slow, stop or kill cancer cells. The type and dose of chemotherapy medication given depends on multiple factors, including the site of origin of the cancer, stage of the cancer, and your overall health.
Types of chemotherapy
Your doctor may choose from more than 100 types of chemotherapy medication to treat your cancer. Chemotherapy may be given independently or in any number of combinations, depending on your individual cancer and the goals of your chemotherapy treatment plan.
Sometimes chemotherapy is intended to cure cancer. Chemotherapy also may be used to control or shrink a cancerous tumor in preparation for surgery or another treatment. Chemotherapy can also help ease your cancer symptoms.
Chemotherapy is incredibly strong, and it must be given in just the right dose. Too little won't serve its intended purpose, yet too much could be life-threatening. Factors used to determine the right dosage for you include your age, weight, nutrition level, and liver and kidney function, among others. Be sure to let your doctor know what, if any, vitamins, medications (prescription and over-the-counter) and supplements you may be taking to avoid negative interactions during the treatment process.
How is chemotherapy administered?
Chemotherapy may be used in conjunction or sequenced with other cancer treatments, such as surgery, radiation therapy or immunotherapy.
Chemotherapy medications may be administered several ways, such as an intravenous infusion treatment, prescription pill to be taken by mouth, or for external application in the form of a cream or gel.
You will likely undergo multiple chemotherapy cycles with days, weeks or even months between each cycle. The breaks between treatments are intended to give your body a chance to rest and recover while enabling it to generate new, healthy cells. Your doctor will give you an estimate of how many cycles you'll complete when developing your treatment plan. The plan may be adjusted based on your body's response to treatment, including increasing or decreasing the number of chemo cycles.
How does chemotherapy work?
Chemotherapy medications travel throughout your body, rather than just targeting a localized tumor or disease site. Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment, making it effective in treating metastatic cancer that has spread beyond the initial tumor site to other parts of your body. However, the far-reaching effects of chemotherapy also mean that healthy cells may become damaged in the process, leading to various medication-related side effects.
Side effects of chemotherapy
The side effects of chemotherapy differ for everyone. You may experience immediate effects, or they may slowly surface throughout the course of your treatment.
The most common side effects of chemotherapy include:
- Decrease in the number of white and red blood cells and platelets
- Bowel and digestive issues
- Hair loss
- Mouth sores
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Nervous system disorders
Some side effects of chemotherapy may be more dangerous than others. Let your doctor know if you experience one or more of the following during treatment:
- Fever of 100.5 degrees or higher
- Unexplained bleeding or bruising
- Rash or symptoms of allergic reaction
- Severe chills
- Pain or soreness at the chemo site
- Intense headaches
- Shortness of breath or other breathing difficulties
- Excessive vomiting or diarrhea
- Blood in your urine or stool
As a comprehensive cancer center, the HonorHealth Virginia G. Piper Cancer Care Network offers services to help lessen chemotherapy side effects. The network offers nutrition counseling, mind and body courses and other integrative therapies to help you physically and mentally as you complete therapy.
Fortunately, the side effects of chemotherapy usually fade away after treatment. In the meantime, your doctor may prescribe anti-nausea or pain-relieving medications. Getting enough rest also goes a long way toward minimizing the side effects of chemo. It's important to make your healthcare team aware of any side effects you're experiencing so appropriate treatment can be provided promptly.
You can receive chemotherapy infusions at locations around the Valley.