Chemotherapy: Medications for Cancer
Learn how chemotherapy drugs are used to treat cancer and how they are given.
Chemotherapy (or chemo) is the use of medications to kill cancer cells. Currently more than 100 drugs are used alone or in combination to treat cancer, and more are being developed all the time.
Chemo is different from radiation and surgery, which are local treatments. Local treatments only affect cancer cells in the treated area. By contrast, chemo is a systemic therapy. It travels throughout the body through the bloodstream. It can seek out and destroy cells that have spread (metastasized) from the original tumor site.
Chemo is one of the most powerful weapons doctors have to fight cancer.
How is chemotherapy used?
Chemotherapy may be used:
As the main treatment (primary therapy). Chemo may be the main or only therapy for a tumor that can't be removed. Before the primary therapy (neo-adjuvant therapy). For example, chemo might be used to shrink a tumor before surgery so it is easier to remove. In addition to the primary treatment (adjuvant therapy). For example, chemo may be used to kill cancer cells that remain after surgery or radiation. To relieve symptoms but not to cure the disease (palliative therapy). Chemo can help shrink or control cancer that can't be cured. This may help the person feel better and live longer.
How is chemotherapy given?
Depending on the type of drug used, chemotherapy may be given:
Through an IV (intravenous) line placed in the hand or arm By mouth, as a pill or capsule As an injection into a muscle or under the skin Through an access (port or catheter) into a central vein in the chest or arm As a cream or lotion applied to the skin
Chemo is usually given in a doctor's office, clinic or hospital. Each treatment may take from one to several hours. In most cases, you can go home between treatments. You may need to stay in the hospital if the treatment will take a long time or you need close monitoring.
Chemo is usually given in cycles, with breaks between cycles for rest. Rest periods give your body a chance to build healthy new cells and regain strength.
How long you will need chemo depends on many factors, including the type of cancer and the drug used. Some people take chemo for several weeks or months, while others need it for a few years.
What are the side effects?
Chemotherapy drugs are usually toxic not only to cancer cells but also to healthy cells. This damage to healthy cells can cause side effects.
Some common side effects include:
Fatigue Nausea and vomiting Anemia Increased bruising and bleeding Hair loss Diarrhea
Your doctor can tell you what side effects to expect and prescribe treatment or suggest lifestyle changes to manage the side effects. Most side effects will gradually go away after treatment ends as healthy cells recover.
Some side effects of chemo can be very serious. Certain drugs can cause long-term damage to organs. They may even cause a second cancer, although this is rare. Most people have no lasting ill effects from chemo.
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