Chemotherapy is the use of medicines to destroy cancerous cells. The drugs are administered orally or through an IV injection. They then circulate in the bloodstream with the goal of reaching any parts of the body where the cancer may have spread.
More than half of all cancer patients receive chemotherapy treatment. Although there may be harsh side effects associated with this treatment, recent advances in medicine have allowed physicians to control and even prevent some of them, allowing patients to maintain a higher quality of life throughout treatment.
Chemotherapy works by stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, which grow and divide quickly. But it can also harm healthy cells that divide quickly, such as those that line your mouth and intestines or cause your hair to grow. Damage to healthy cells may cause side effects. Often, side effects get better or go away after chemotherapy is over.
Depending on your type of cancer and how advanced it is, chemotherapy can:
When chemotherapy destroys cancer cells to the point that your doctor can no longer detect them in your body and they will not grow back.
When chemotherapy keeps cancer from spreading, slows its growth, or destroys cancer cells that have spread to other parts of your body.
Ease Cancer Symptoms (also called palliative care):
When chemotherapy shrinks tumors that are causing pain or pressure.
Sometimes, chemotherapy is used as the only cancer treatment. But more often, you will get chemotherapy along with surgery, radiation therapy, or biological therapy. Chemotherapy can:
- Make a tumor smaller before surgery or radiation therapy. This is called neo-adjuvant chemotherapy.
- Destroy cancer cells that may remain after surgery or radiation therapy. This is called adjuvant chemotherapy.
- Help radiation therapy and biological therapy work better.
- Destroy cancer cells that have come back (recurrent cancer) or spread to other parts of your body (metastatic cancer).
Treatment schedules for chemotherapy vary widely. How often and how long you get chemotherapy depends on:
- Your type of cancer and how advanced it is.
- The goals of treatment (whether chemotherapy is used to cure your cancer, control its growth, or ease the symptoms).
- The type of chemotherapy.
- How your body reacts to chemotherapy.
You may receive chemotherapy in cycles. A cycle is a period of chemotherapy treatment followed by a period of rest. For instance, you might receive 1 week of chemotherapy followed by 3 weeks of rest. These 4 weeks make up one cycle. The rest period gives your body a chance to build new healthy cells.
It is not good to skip a chemotherapy treatment. But sometimes your doctor or nurse may change your chemotherapy schedule. This can be due to side effects you are having. If this happens, your doctor or nurse will explain what to do and when to start treatment again.
Chemotherapy may be given in many ways:
The chemotherapy is given by a shot in a muscle in your arm, thigh, or hip or right under the skin in the fatty part of your arm, leg, or belly.
The chemotherapy goes directly into the artery that is feeding the cancer.
The chemotherapy goes directly into the peritoneal cavity (the area that contains organs such as your intestines, stomach, liver, and ovaries).
The chemotherapy goes directly into a vein.
The chemotherapy comes in a cream that you rub onto your skin.
The chemotherapy comes in pills, capsules, or liquids that you swallow.
Chemotherapy affects people in different ways. How you feel depends on how healthy you are before treatment, your type of cancer, how advanced it is, the kind of chemotherapy you are getting, and the dose. Doctors and nurses cannot know for certain how you will feel during chemotherapy.
Some people do not feel well right after chemotherapy. The most common side effect is fatigue, feeling exhausted and worn out. You can prepare for fatigue by:
- Asking someone to drive you to and from chemotherapy.
- Planning time to rest on the day of and day after chemotherapy.
- Getting help with meals and childcare the day of and at least 1 day after chemotherapy.
There are many ways you can help manage chemotherapy side effects. For more information, go to How to Manage Side Effects During Treatment.
Many people can work during chemotherapy, as long as they match their schedule to how they feel. Whether or not you can work may depend on what kind of work you do. If your job allows, you may want to see if you can work part-time or work from home on days you do not feel well.
Many employers are required by law to change your work schedule to meet your needs during cancer treatment. Talk with your employer about ways to adjust your work during chemotherapy. You can learn more about these laws by talking with a social worker.