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Chemotherapy is an aggressive form of chemical drug therapy meant to destroy rapidly growing cells in the body. It’s usually used to treat cancer, as cancer cells grow and divide faster than other cells. A doctor who specializes in cancer treatment is known as an oncologist. They’ll work with you to come up with your treatment plan.
Chemotherapy is often used in combination with other therapies, such as surgery, radiation, or hormone therapy. This depends on:
It’s considered a systemic treatment, which means it affects the entire body.
While chemotherapy has been proven to effectively attack cancer cells, it can cause serious side effects that can severely impact your quality of life. You should weigh these side effects against the risk of not getting treatment when deciding if chemotherapy is right for you.
Chemotherapy is primarily used to:
If you’ve undergone surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, such as a lumpectomy for breast cancer, your oncologist may recommend that you have chemotherapy to ensure that any lingering cancer cells are killed as well.
Chemotherapy is also used to prepare you for other treatments. It could be used to shrink a tumor so it can be surgically removed or to prepare you for radiation therapy.
In the case of late-stage cancer, chemotherapy may help relieve pain.
Besides treatment for cancer, chemotherapy may be used to prepare people with bone marrow diseases for a bone marrow stem cell treatment and it may be used for immune system disorders. Doses much lower than those used to treat cancer can be used to help disorders in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells, like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.
Chemotherapy is designed to kill cells that divide quickly. While cancer cells are these kinds of cells, other cells in your body divide quickly as well. Cells in the following areas can be adversely affected:
Because of this, the side effects of chemotherapy include:
Your doctor can help you manage these side effects with medications, lifestyle tips, and more.
Most side effects of chemotherapy subside when treatment is over. There’s the risk of long-lasting effects that may develop even years after the treatment, depending on the type of chemotherapy used.
These effects could include damage to the:
There’s also the chance of developing a second cancer as a result of chemotherapy. Before beginning treatment, talk to your doctor about the possible risks and what symptoms you should be aware of.
As chemotherapy is a serious treatment for a serious condition, it’s important to plan ahead before beginning therapy. Your doctor and hospital staff will help you anticipate the potential problems associated with treatment.
Before you begin therapy, you’ll undergo a series of tests to help determine if you’re healthy enough for chemotherapy. This will include examinations of your heart and blood tests to determine the health of your liver. These tests can also help guide your doctor in deciding which types of chemotherapy to use in your treatment.
Your doctor may also recommend that you visit your dentist before beginning treatment. As chemotherapy affects your body’s ability to heal, any infection in your gums or teeth could potentially spread throughout your body.
Your doctor may install a port if you’re getting chemotherapy through an intravenous (IV) line. A port is a device that’s implanted in your body, typically in your chest near your shoulder. This allows for easier access to your veins and is less painful. During each treatment, the IV will be inserted into your port.
Consider these preparation tips for chemotherapy treatment:
You and your doctor can work together to consider all variables and determine the best course of your treatment. Chemotherapy is typically given in pill form or directly into veins by injection or an IV. In addition to these two forms, chemotherapy may also be administered in several other ways.
Chemotherapy delivery options include the following:
Where you receive treatment depends on your chosen delivery method. For instance, if you use creams or pills, you can give yourself treatments at home. Other procedures are usually performed at a hospital or a cancer treatment center.
Your chemotherapy schedule, as in how often you receive treatment, will be customized for you. It can be changed if your body doesn’t handle the treatment well, or it can be increased or decreased depending on how well the cancer cells react to treatments.
Your doctor and cancer treatment team will regularly monitor the effectiveness of your treatments. These will include imaging techniques, blood tests, and possibly more. Your doctor can adjust your treatment at any time.
The more you share with your doctor about how chemotherapy is affecting you, the better your treatment experience will be. You’ll want to tell them about any side effects or treatment-related problems you’re having so that they can make adjustments to your treatment if necessary.
Written by: Brian Krans
Medically reviewed on: Mar 01, 2016: Helen Chen, MPH
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