Chemotherapy is a group of medicines used to treat cancer. While surgery and radiation therapy target specific areas of cancer, chemotherapy works throughout the body and can destroy cancer cells that have spread (metastasized) from the original tumor site.
How does chemotherapy work?
Chemotherapy destroys cancer cells. Some cancer cells grow slowly; others, rapidly. As a result, different types of chemotherapy drugs are designed to target the growth patterns of specific types of cancer cells. Each drug has a different way of working and is effective at a specific time in the life cycle of the targeted cells. Your doctor will develop a treatment plan specifically for you, based on your type of cancer, its stage of advancement, and your overall health.
Depending on your individual condition, your chemotherapy may be designed to achieve one or more of the three goals: remission, controlling and/or relieving symptoms.
How is chemotherapy administered?
Your doctor will choose the method that will be most effective against your particular type of cancer and cause the fewest side effects. You may receive chemotherapy drugs in one or more of the following ways:
- Shot (injections)
- IV (intravenous or dripping medicine through a tube into the vein)
- Pill (oral medication)
Frequency of chemotherapy
How often you take chemotherapy depends on the type of cancer and which drug or combination of drugs you receive. Different drugs work at varying times in the cancer cell growth process. Your physicians will take all of these factors into consideration as they develop your treatment schedule. Chemotherapy is usually structured in cycles with rest periods between, and generally, treatments are given daily, weekly or monthly.
Possible side effects
Chemotherapy works by destroying cancer cells. Unfortunately, it can’t necessarily tell the difference between a cancer cell and a healthy cell; therefore, it can cause side effects. Among the most common are nausea, vomiting, hair loss, fatigue and low blood counts. Some side effects may be temporary and merely annoying. Others, however, can be life-threatening. Be sure to tell your doctor about any side effects you experience. In most cases, your doctor can help you successfully manage side effects throughout your treatment cycles. Learn more about cancer treatment side effects and tips for managing them.
Managing a Low White Blood Cell Count
Neutropenia, or low white blood cells, is a common side effect caused by chemotherapy. Your body is more likely to develop an infection when your body's white blood cells are low, which could be dangerous. For this reason most chemotherapy patients will receive a growth factor shot the day after treatment to boost the growth of these important cells. Some patients will receive an on-body injector so that a trip to the cancer center the next day isn't necessary. While this doesn't completely eliminate the possibility of developing an infection, it reduces the likelihood. Learn more about neutropenia.
How do I know my chemotherapy is working?
Each person responds differently to treatment. Your doctor will closely monitor and measure your progress. Because some people experience side effects associated with their treatment and others have none, the presence or absence of side effects is not a reliable means of measuring the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
Questions to ask about chemotherapy:
- Why is chemotherapy the best option for me?
- What specific type of chemotherapy are you recommending?
- What is the goal of this treatment?
- Can chemotherapy ease my symptoms?
- What side effects might I expect, and what can I do to manage them?
- How often will I receive chemotherapy and how long will my chemotherapy treatments last?
- What restrictions (dietary, working, exercising) will I have during my treatment?
- When will I be able to return to my normal activities?
- What experiences have other patients had with similar chemotherapy regimens?
You will have the opportunity to ask questions during your one-on-one visit with a clinician who will review your individual chemotherapy treatment plan prior to your first chemotherapy infusion.