Chemotherapy is a treatment used to kill cancer cells. It involves taking medications that are toxic to fast-growing cells like cancer cells.
Chemotherapy is used to treat cancer. The goal is to reduce the number of cancer cells or decrease the size of tumors.
Many types of chemotherapy drugs not only damage the cancer cells but can also damage some of your normal cells. This can create side effects. Side effects will vary between chemotherapy treatments. Your doctor will review a list of possible side effects for your treatment type. Some side effects of chemotherapy include: Nausea and/or vomitingDiarrhea
constipationAppetite lossHair loss
Low red blood cell count—anemiaWeakened immune system with an increased risk of infectionsFatigueEasy bruising and/or bleedingMouth soresNumbness and tingling sensation in the hands and/or feet, or weakness due to nerve damage—peripheral neuropathyKidney damageDamage to the heart muscleInfertilityInterruption of the menstrual period
You and your doctor will talk about options to help relieve some of these side effects.
You may be asked to take some pre-medications such as: SteroidsAllergy medications, such as an antihistamineAntiemetics to control nauseaSedativesAntibiotics
Your doctor will talk to you about the best way to deliver the medication(s).
Chemotherapy drugs may be given by: IVMouthCatheter tube into the bladder, abdomen, chest cavity, brain, spinal cord, or liverInjection into a muscleApplication to the skin
Chemotherapy Delivery Through the Cardiovascular System
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How long it will take depends on the method used, the number of medications, and the amount of each medication. A session may be as brief as the time it takes to swallow a pill. It could also take several hours or last overnight. Some types of chemotherapy can be given as a continuous infusion through a portable pump.
The treatment may cause a number of uncomfortable side effects. The delivery of the chemotherapy usually does not hurt.
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.
Your doctor may choose to keep you in the hospital if you have complications, such as severe vomiting.
You may be given any of the following: Medications to take at homeInjections of an immune-system or blood cell boosting drugOther drugs, including steroids, allergy medications, sedatives, and antibiotics
When you return home: Balance periods of rest and activity.Try to do some physical activity each day. Exercise can help to reduce fatigue.Try to eat a healthful diet.
Drink lots of fluids to avoid
Try to avoid people with diseases that can be spread easily, including children. Chemotherapy will likely weaken your immune system. Viral illnesses, such as a
flu, can have serious effects.
Your doctor may order any of the following tests to check the progress of your treatment:
Tests of your bodily fluids may be done with:
Blood testsUrine testsBone marrow biopsiesImaging tests may include:
X-rayUltrasoundMRI scanCT scanBone scans
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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