Chemotherapy is a category of powerful drugs used to kill cancer cells throughout the body. While it is sometimes used alone, it’s often combined with other cancer treatments such as surgery, radiation, or immunotherapy.
How Does Chemotherapy Work?
The overall goal of chemotherapy is to destroy cancer cells by keeping them from growing, dividing, and making more cells.
Depending on the treatment plan, chemotherapy may be given before surgery to shrink a tumor, after surgery to help clear out any cells left in the body, or both. Other times, it may be given in combination with radiation, immunotherapy, or targeted therapies to more effectively kill cancer cells.
There are a lot of different chemotherapy drugs available. Your medical oncologist will choose the best drug, or combination of drugs, for your specific type, stage, and grade of cancer.
Depending on where you are in your cancer treatment program, the goal of chemotherapy could vary:
- Remission — When the chemo has destroyed the cancer cells so that they are no longer able to be detected by a doctor. Chemotherapy may not be the only treatment used to put the cancer in remission, but it often plays a major role.
- Reduction — When it's necessary to reduce the size of the tumor before surgery. The smaller the tumor, the less cells that can get loose from the tumor as it's removed to then spread through the body.
- Control — When chemo drugs have slowed tumor growth or stopped cancer from spreading to other parts of the body
- Relieve — When chemo can’t rid the body of cancer or slow the spread but can shrink tumors enough so symptoms can be managed
How is Chemotherapy Given?
Chemotherapy can be administered in several ways. Your oncologist will decide which way will be most effective for your situation, based upon how advanced your cancer is, the goal of your treatment, and how your body responds to the drugs. Usually, chemotherapy is given in cycles, which means you’ll receive the drugs for a period of a few weeks or months, and then you will have a rest period where you do not receive the drugs.
Chemo Delivery Methods
You may receive the chemotherapy drugs in one or more of the following ways:
- Infusion – There are a few methods that directly deliver chemotherapy drugs into specific areas of your body through tubes and a needle The intravenous (IV) method delivers drugs directly into your vein. For a few types of cancer chemotherapy may be given with the intra-arterial (IA) method that delivers drugs directly into your artery or the intrathecal (IT) method where chemo is given directly in the spinal fluid. Most patients have their chemo given intravenously.
Because an IV requires a needle to get into the vein, a “port” is typically inserted under the skin in a short surgical procedure. The port makes it easier to deliver the chemotherapy without poking a vein every time you come in for chemo treatments.
Infusion is usually administered in an outpatient setting. Patients of Affiliated Oncologists can receive infusion treatments at any of our convenient locations, including Chicago Ridge, Mokena, and Hazel Crest.
- Injection – The doctor or nurse will give you a shot (needle) directly into your muscle, in the hip, thigh, arm, or leg.
- Oral – The drugs are contained in a pill or a liquid that you take by mouth.
- Topical — The drug comes in cream form that can be rubbed on the skin.
How Often Do You Get Chemotherapy?
Cancer treatment generally occurs in cycles where you have periods that you are receiving the drugs alternating with rest periods where no drugs are given. The specific treatment plan developed by your oncologist will determine how often you will receive chemotherapy. Several factors determine how often you receive treatment, such as your type of cancer and the drug or combination of drugs being used.
The length of time it takes to receive your treatment will vary as well. Some treatment plans allow all drugs to be given on a single day during the cycle. Sometimes treatment may span several days in a row, or you may receive chemotherapy on an outpatient or inpatient basis. Treatment can happen daily, weekly or monthly.
What Are the Side Effects of Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy uses very powerful drugs to kill cancer cells. Unfortunately, the same drug also destroys healthy cells. The damage to your healthy cells is what causes most of the side effects of chemotherapy. Although everyone reacts differently to treatment, and some side effects depend on the specific medication, there are some common side effects that include nausea, vomiting, hair loss, fatigue, and low blood counts.
Side effects can range from mild to severe. The good news is that there are steps you can take to better manage them.
- Nausea – Consider changing your eating habits by eating smaller, more frequent meals, taking your time when you eat or avoiding sweet or greasy foods that upset your stomach.
- Fatigue – Incorporate exercise into your routine or take naps during the day to boost your energy.
- Hair Loss – Be gentle with your hair. Consider a shorter hairstyle that will make your hair look fuller and avoid using harsh chemicals when washing or styling. Prepare ahead of time by buying a wig before you lose your hair so it will closely match your natural hair color.
Learn more about chemotherapy side effects and how to manage them.
Your oncologist is a great person to help you with managing the side effects of treatment. Ask him or her for advice regarding your specific concerns.
How Do I Know the Chemotherapy Treatment is Working?
Throughout your treatment, your progress will be monitored. Using certain tests on your blood and urine, X-rays, or different types of scans, your oncologist can access how the cancer is responding to treatment and if adjustments need to be made to the treatment plan.
Certain symptoms could indicate that your cancer has grown spread, but they could also just be side effects of the treatment. Because some patients have side effects while others don’t, the presence or absence of them is not a good way to determine whether the medication is working. It is best to rely on the evidence your oncologist provides through testing to see if the treatment is working.
Questions to Ask Your Oncologist About Chemotherapy
A cancer diagnosis that requires chemotherapy is a lot to process. At first, you may be overwhelmed, but eventually, you will probably have many questions. Take some time to think about your concerns and details you would want to discuss. Here are some questions about chemotherapy to ask your oncologist:
- Why do you think chemotherapy the best treatment option for me?
- What specific type of chemotherapy are you recommending?
- What is the goal of this treatment? Remission? Symptom management?
- What are the common side effects and how can they be managed?
- How often will I receive chemotherapy, and how long will my chemotherapy treatments last?
- Are there certain restrictions (dietary, working, exercising) during my treatment?
- When will I be able to return to my normal activities?
- What experiences have other patients had with similar chemotherapy regimens?