Chemotherapy (Medical Oncology)
Chemotherapy involves the use of medicines to treat cancer. There are over 100 chemotherapy drugs, used individually or in various combinations depending on your cancer. You and your doctor will decide which drug or combination of drugs, dosages, frequency, and length of treatment is best for you.
Depending on the type of cancer and its stage of development, chemotherapy can be used for a variety of purposes including:
You usually receive chemotherapy in cycles, depending on your condition and which drugs are used. Treatment may include taking the drugs daily, weekly, or monthly for a few months or several months, with a recovery period after each cycle. Recovery periods allow time for your body to rest and produce new, healthy cells.
Chemotherapy drugs can be taken in a number of forms. Your doctor determines what form(s) to use primarily based on what type of cancer you have and what drug(s) will best treat your cancer. Examples of different forms of chemotherapy include:
- Intravenous (IV). Chemotherapy is injected into a vein, using a needle inserted through your skin. This allows rapid distribution of the chemotherapy throughout your entire body.
- Oral. You swallow this form of chemotherapy as a pill.
- Topical. This type of drug is applied to your skin to treat localized skin cancers.
- Injection. Using a needle, your doctor injects the drug directly into a muscle, under your skin, or into a cancerous area on your skin.
Regardless of how they are given, chemotherapy medications generally travel in your bloodstream and throughout your entire body. The intravenous route is the most common, allowing chemotherapy drugs to spread quickly through your system. To direct chemotherapy to a more confined area of your body—to ensure a tumor is exposed to more of the drug—your doctor may insert a catheter directly into that area or into a blood vessel supplying the tumor.
Because chemotherapy drugs can affect healthy cells, one of their disadvantages is that you may experience side effects, some being temporary and others longer term. Not every drug will cause every side effect, and every person reacts differently to chemotherapy treatments. Your doctor can tell you what to expect from your treatment.
Temporary side effects from chemotherapy treatments might include:
- Hair loss
- Dry mouth and mouth sores
- Difficult or painful swallowing
- Nausea and vomiting
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Susceptibility to infection
- Loss of appetite and changes in the way food tastes
- Memory impairment, sometimes referred to as “chemo brain”
- Liver damage, kidney damage, nerve damage
How long these temporary side effects last depends on what drug(s) you take and for how long. Most side effects will diminish shortly after you stop your chemotherapy treatments. Most short-term side effects can be reduced with medication. If side effects make you uncomfortable or if you experience pain, tell your doctor. If you find that the side effects are more than you are willing to endure, you can change treatments.
Questions to ask your doctor about chemotherapy
- What is the goal of chemotherapy for my cancer?
- What are the chances that the chemotherapy will work?
- After chemotherapy, will I be cured, in remission, or relieved of my symptoms?
- Are there other ways to achieve the same goal?
- How will I know if the chemotherapy is working?
- If the chemotherapy does not work, are there other treatments for me?
- What are the potential risks and side effects of chemotherapy?
- Will chemotherapy restrict my diet, activities, work, exercise, sexual activity in any way?