The term chemotherapy is used to describe cancer-killing drugs. Chemotherapy may be used to:
Cure the cancer
Shrink the cancer
Prevent the cancer from spreading
Relieve symptoms the cancer may be causing
Cancer chemotherapy; Cancer drug therapy; Cytotoxic chemotherapy
HOW CHEMOTHERAPY IS GIVEN
Depending on the type of cancer and where it is found, chemotherapy may be given different ways, including:
Injections or shots into the muscles
Injections or shots under the skin
Into an artery
Into a vein (intravenous, or IV)
Pills taken by mouth
Shots into the fluid around the spinal cord or brain
When chemotherapy is given over a longer period, a thin catheter can be placed into a large vein near the heart. This is called a central line. The catheter is placed during a minor surgery.
There are many types of catheters, including:
Central venous catheter
Central venous catheter with a port
Percutaneously inserted central catheter (PICC)
Different chemotherapy drugs may be given at the same time or after each other. Patients may receive radiation therapy before, after, or while they are getting chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is most often given in cycles. These cycles may last one day, several days, or a few weeks or more. There will usually be a rest period when no chemotherapy is given between each cycle. A rest period may last for days, weeks, or months. This allows the body and blood counts to recover before the next dose.
Often, chemotherapy is given at a special clinic or at the hospital. Some people are able to receive chemotherapy in their home. If home chemotherapy is given, home health nurses will help with the medicine and IVs. Patients and their family members will receive special training.
SIDE EFFECTS OF CHEMOTHERAPY
Because these medicines travel through the blood to the entire body, chemotherapy is described as a body-wide treatment.
As a result, chemotherapy may damage or kill some normal cells, such as those found in the bone marrow, hair, and the lining of the digestive tract.
When this damage occurs, there can be side effects. Some people who receive chemotherapy:
Side effects of chemotherapy depend on many things, including the type of cancer, and which drugs are being used. Each patient reacts differently to these drugs. Some newer chemotherapy drugs that better target cancer cells may cause fewer side effects.
Your doctor and nurse will explain what you can do at home to prevent or treat side effects, such as:
Being careful with pets and other animals to avoid catching infections from them
Eating enough calories and protein to keep your weight up
Preventing bleeding, and what to do if bleeding occurs
You will need to have follow-up visits with your doctor and nurse during and after chemotherapy. Blood tests and imaging tests, such as x-rays, MRI, CT, or PET scans will be done to:
Monitor how well the chemotherapy is working
Watch for damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, blood, and other parts of the body
Collins JM. Cancer pharmacology. Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, et al., eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2013:chap 29.
National Cancer Institute. Chemotherapy and you: support for people who have cancer. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/chemotherapy-and-you. Accessed May 29, 2014.
Yi-Bin Chen, MD, Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.