What is chemotherapy?

Also called “chemo,” it’s a way to treat cancer that uses drugs to kill cancer cells.

How does chemotherapy work?

It targets cells that grow and divide quickly, as cancer cells do. Unlike radiation or surgery, which target specific areas, chemo can work throughout your body. But it can also affect some fast-growing healthy cells, like those of the skin, hair, intestines, and bone marrow. That’s what causes some of the side effects from the treatment.

What does chemotherapy do?

It depends on the kind of cancer you have and how far along it is.

Cure: In some cases, the treatment can destroy cancer cells to the point that your doctor can no longer detect them in your body. After that, the best outcome is that they never grow back again, but that doesn’t always happen.

Control: In some cases, it may only be able to keep cancer from spreading to other parts of your body or slow the growth of cancer tumours.

Ease symptoms: In some cases, chemotherapy can’t cure or control the spread of cancer and is simply used to shrink tumours that cause pain or pressure. These tumours often continue to grow back.

Why chemotherapy is used?

Chemotherapy is primarily used to:

  • lower the total number of cancer cells in your body
  • reduce the likelihood of cancer spreading
  • shrink tumour size
  • reduce current symptoms

If you’ve undergone surgery to remove a cancerous tumour, such as a lumpectomy for breast cancer, your oncologist may recommend 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 tumour 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.

How long does chemotherapy last?

That depends on:

  • The type of cancer you have
  • How far along it is
  • The goal of treatment: cure, control growth, or ease pain
  • The type of chemotherapy
  • The way your body responds to the treatment

You may have chemotherapy in “cycles,” which means a period of treatment and then a period of rest. For example, a 4-week cycle may be 1 week of treatment and then 3 weeks of rest. The rest allows your body to make new healthy cells. Once a cycle has been planned out, it’s better not to skip a treatment, but your doctor may suggest it if side effects are serious. Then your medical team will likely plan a new cycle to help you get back on track.

How chemotherapy is performed?

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:

  • Chemotherapy can be delivered directly into the tumor, depending on the tumor’s location. If you undergo surgery to remove the tumor, your doctor can implant slow-dissolving discs that release medications over time.
  • Some skin cancers can be treated with chemotherapy creams.
  • Chemotherapy can be delivered to a specific part of the body through localized treatment, such as directly into the abdomen, chest, central nervous system, or into the bladder through the urethra.
  • Some types of chemotherapy can be taken by mouth through pills.
  • Liquid chemotherapy drugs can be delivered in single shots, or you can have a port installed where a needle is inserted for each treatment. The infusion method with a port only involves pain at the injection site during the first visit, but the port needle can loosen depending on your level of activity.

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.

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