Chemotherapy (Drug Therapy for Cancer)

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is medicine used to kill, slow, or stop the growth of cancer cells.

When is it used?

Cancer cells grow and multiply more quickly than normal cells. Chemotherapy may be used to:

  • Control the cancer. This is done by keeping the cancer from spreading, slowing the cancer’s growth, and killing cancer cells that may have spread to other parts of the body.
  • Relieve symptoms from the cancer. Relieving symptoms such as pain can help people who have cancer to live more comfortably. Controlling the size of the cancer can prevent problems or symptoms caused by pressure from the tumor on nearby organs.
  • Cure the cancer. The chemotherapy is given to kill the cancer cells, but it may also cause some harmful side effects.

Chemotherapy may be used alone or with other treatments, such as surgery or radiation. The treatment depends on what type of cancer you have, where it is located, and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. The medicine may be given by mouth or by shot, or it may be put in a vein (IV, or intravenous).

You may choose not to have treatment. Ask your healthcare provider about your choices for treatment and the risks.

How do I prepare for this procedure?

Ask your healthcare provider what your schedule will be and how you should expect to feel.

  • Plan for your care and find someone to give you a ride home after the procedure. It is helpful to have a family member or friend with you during your treatments.
  • Tell your provider if you have had kidney problems or an allergy to chemicals, such as contrast dye. Contrast dye is used for some scans.
  • You may or may not need to take your regular medicines the day of the procedure, depending on what they are and when you need to take them. Tell your healthcare provider about all medicines and supplements that you take.
  • Follow any instructions your healthcare provider gives you.
  • Ask any questions you have before the procedure. You should understand what your healthcare provider is going to do and how the treatments are likely to make you feel.

What happens during the procedure?

There are many chemotherapy drugs. There are 3 main categories:

  • Antimitotic drugs stop cancer cell growth by stopping cells from dividing into more cells. There are many ways to do this, so there are many different kinds of these drugs.
  • Hormone inhibitors may be used to stop natural hormones from helping the cancer grow. For example, the female hormone estrogen makes some breast cancers grow. The male hormone testosterone makes some prostate cancers grow.
  • Steroids, such as Prednisone, are used to treat leukemia, lymphoma, and other types of cancer, or to treat their side effects.
  • Biological therapy is the name for a group of cancer drugs that help the immune system fight cancer. This type of therapy is also called immunotherapy.

Chemotherapy may be used alone or combined with other treatments, such as surgery or radiation. The treatment depends on what type of tumor you have, where the tumor is, and how much it has spread. The medicine may be given on many different schedules: daily, weekly, or monthly. The schedules are based on what research has found to work best for each type of cancer. The medicine may be given by mouth, by shot, or into a tube put in a vein (IV, or intravenous). If given by shot, it can be injected into a muscle or it may be given into the spinal cord area.

IV medicine may be given over a few minutes or a few hours. You may be able to give some treatments to yourself at home. Portable pumps are available for chemotherapy treatments that go into the vein. The pump makes sure the prescribed dose of medicine is given over the correct period of time. You may receive some medicines at your healthcare provider’s office and then go home wearing a pump at your waist (like a fanny pack) for a prescribed number of hours or a couple of days.

What happens after the procedure?

Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How long it will take to recover
  • What activities you should avoid, including how much weight you can lift and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

What are the risks of this procedure?

While it is killing cancer cells, chemotherapy can also cause side effects such as:

  • Loss of head and body hair
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Bleeding problems
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Weakness, tiredness, and fatigue
  • Sores in the mouth
  • Loss of appetite

If the side effects get severe, treatment may be stopped for a while, or the dose may be lowered. In extreme cases, treatment may be stopped completely and other treatment options may be considered.

Your healthcare provider will explain the procedure and any risks. Some possible risks include:

  • There is a risk of hurting healthy cells.
  • If you are having both radiation therapy and chemotherapy, you may have more side effects.
  • Chemotherapy may not destroy all of the cancer.
  • Long term side effects, such as harm to organs or getting another type of cancer.
  • The cancer may come back.

Every procedure or treatment has risks. Ask your healthcare provider how these risks apply to you. Be sure to discuss any other questions or concerns that you may have.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-09-10
Last reviewed: 2014-09-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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