Chemotherapy is medication(s) used to kill cancer cells. The medications are toxic to fast-growing cells like cancer cells.
Chemotherapy may be the main treatment or part of a treatment plan. It can be used to: Cure certain cancersDecrease the chance of cancer returning after it has been removed through surgeryStop the growth of cancers that can not be removedReduce the size of tumors before surgeryAttack cancer that has spread to other parts of the bodyShrink tumors that are causing problems
Chemotherapy drugs attack fast-growing cells. All cancer cells are fast-growing but certain healthy cells are also fast-growing cells. Chemotherapy can damage these healthy cells which leads to side effects. The exact types of side effects will vary. They will depend on the type of chemotherapy treatment and which healthy cells are affected.
Cells that line the mouth, stomach, and intestines are fast-growing cells. Chemotherapy can damage these cells and cause: Nausea and/or vomitingDiarrhea
constipationAppetite lossMouth sores
Damage to blood cells can lead to: Anemia—low red blood cell count
Weakened immune system with an increased risk of infectionsFatigueEasy bruising and/or bleeding
Cells at the root of hairs are also fast growing. Damage to these cells causes hair loss.
Other areas that may be affected include: Nerves—damage or irritation to the nerves may cause peripheral neuropathy, numbness and tingling sensation in the hands and/or feetKidney—chemotherapy drugs eventually pass through the kidneys can damage to the kidneys Heart—certain chemotherapy drugs can cause damage to the heart muscleReproductive organ changes may cause: InfertilityInterruption of the menstrual cycle
The medical team will work to find a chemotherapy plan that is most effective against the cancer with the fewest amount of side effects. Other treatments may also help better manage side effects.
Some medication may be needed before treatment such as: Steroids—to decrease inflammationAllergy medications, such as an antihistamineAntiemetics to control nauseaSedativesAntibiotics—to decrease the risk of infections
The medical team will talk to you about the best way to deliver the treatment.
Chemotherapy drugs may be given by: IV—needle is inserted into a vein in the arm and medication is slowly passed into the bloodMouth—pills or liquidsInjection which may be: Passed directly into a muscle Placed just under the skin into fatty tissueIntrathecal—injection into tissue that covers the spine and brainIntra-arterial—injected into artery that leads right to cancerIntraperitoneal—injected into area over abdomenTopical—placed directly on the skin
Chemotherapy Delivery Through the Cardiovascular System
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The length of treatment will depend on the type of treatment, the number of medications, and the amount needed. A session may be taking a pill or an infusion over several hours. Some types of chemotherapy may be continuously given through a pump.
The delivery of the chemotherapy will usually not cause pain. Side effects may start in the hours and days after treatment.
Most often, you can leave after the medication is delivered. Some chemotherapy treatments will require a stay in the hospital. This may be about 2-3 days.
A hospital stay may be needed if there are certain complications, such as severe vomiting.
Treatment after chemotherapy may include: Injections of an immune-system or blood cell boosting drugOther drugs, including steroids, allergy medications, sedatives, and antibiotics
Recovery time at home will depend on the type of treatment and your reaction to it. Some will need longer periods of rest than other and have greater impact on daily tasks.
Follow up tests will be needed to make sure the treatment is working as expected. The tests will also help plan future treatments.
Contact your doctor if you are having difficulty managing chemotherapy or you develop complications such as: Signs of infection, including fever and chillsSores in your mouth, throat, or lipsWhite patches in your mouthDifficulty/pain with swallowingDiarrhea or constipationVomiting that prevents you from holding down fluidsBlood in your vomitEasy bruisingNosebleeds, bleeding gums, new vaginal bleedingBlood in your urine or stoolBurning or frequency of urinationChest painSevere weaknessShortness of breath, trouble breathing, or cough Calf pain, swelling, or redness in the legs or feetAbnormal vaginal discharge, itching, or odorNew pain or pain that you cannot control with the medications you were givenNumbness, tingling, or pain in your extremitiesJoint pain, stiffness, rash, or other new symptomsRedness, swelling, increasing pain, excessive bleeding, or a pimple at the site of your IVHeadache, stiff neckHearing or vision changesRinging in your earsExposure to someone with an infectious illness, including chickenpoxWeight gain or loss of 10 pounds or more
If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.
Chemotherapy and you: Support for people with cancer.
National Cancer Institute website. Available at:
http://www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/chemo-and-you. Updated June 2011.
Accessed November 22, 2016.
Understanding chemotherapy. National Cancer Institute website. Available at:
http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/chemo-side-effects/understandingchemo. Accessed November 22, 2016.
Last reviewed September 2016 by Mohei Abouzied, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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