Chemotherapy (also referred to as “chemo”) is a group of medicines used to treat cancer. It differs from surgery and radiation in that it works throughout the body to kill cancer cells, rather than targeting a very specific area. It’s often used as part of a cancer treatment program when the cancer cells have spread (metastasized) from the original tumor site into other parts of the body.
Because chemo kills both cancer cells and some healthy cells, side effects often occur. Non-cancerous cells typically repair themselves after chemotherapy, which means the side effects are reduced over time.
How Chemotherapy Works Against Cancer
Chemotherapy works by stopping or slowing cancer cells’ growth, regardless of whether they grow slowly or quickly. Several different chemotherapy drugs are available to target specific types of cancer cells based on their behavior. Depending on your condition, your chemotherapy may be prescribed to achieve one or more of the three goals: remission, controlling, or relieving symptoms.
The type of chemotherapy you receive will depend on your type of cancer, its stage of advancement, and your overall health. Your WVCI oncologist will recommend a treatment plan that is most likely to provide the best results for you.
How is Chemotherapy Given and How Often?
Chemotherapy can be given in several different ways. However, it is most commonly given:
- As an injection
How often your chemotherapy is administered depends on your type of cancer and drugs your oncologist has prescribed. Different chemotherapy drugs work at various times in the cancer cell growth process. Your WVCI cancer specialists will take all of these factors into consideration as they develop your treatment schedule.
Chemotherapy is usually structured in cycles with rest periods between. A cycle is what some people refer to as a “round of chemo.” The rest period is typically a week or several weeks in between doses of chemotherapy. Several cycles make up a “course of chemotherapy” which may take 3-6 months to complete. It is common for chemo to be used as a treatment, along with surgery and radiation.
Neoadjuvant & Adjuvant Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is often used alongside surgery or radiation therapy to treat cancer. If your cancer treatment plan includes adjuvant chemotherapy or neoadjuvant chemotherapy, that means you will be receiving chemotherapy in addition to radiation or surgery to treat your cancer.
It is frequently administered before or after other treatment methods to improve results. The different terms indicate the order in which you will get these treatments:
- Neoadjuvant chemotherapy is delivered before surgery or radiation therapy in an effort to shrink a tumor.
- Adjuvant chemotherapy is delivered after surgery in an effort to kill any remaining cancer cells. It may also be given along with radiation therapy following surgery.
Your cancer care team will decide what is best for you based on your cancer type and stage, as well as your overall health.
Types of Chemotherapy
The type of chemotherapy patients receive depends on various factors, including the type and stage of cancer, where the tumor is present, and any other patient-specific characteristics. Your cancer care specialists at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute (WVCI) will recommend a cancer treatment plan that will work best for you.
There are times when patients only receive a single type of chemotherapy. However, most patients are treated with more than one type of chemo at a time. This combination helps attack cancer in different ways, which can be more effective depending on the type of cancer the patient has.
Other cancer treatments that use medicine to treat cancer include immunotherapy and targeted therapy. Where standard chemotherapy works by killing both cancer cells and some healthy cells, immunotherapy and targeted treatment hone in on specific targets (molecules) in or on cancer cells.
How Chemotherapy is Administered
Chemotherapy drugs can be given in a variety of different ways. However, the most common method is intravenously through an IV or a central line catheter, such as a port. A port is a small, round disc that is implanted under your skin prior to your first session. It will remain there until you have finished treatment.
Other common methods for delivering chemotherapy include:
- Oral: The chemotherapy comes in pills, capsules, or liquids that you swallow
- Topical: The chemotherapy comes in a cream that you rub onto your skin
- Injection: The chemotherapy is given by a shot in a muscle in your arm, thigh, or hip, or right under the skin in the fatty part of your arm, leg, or belly
Your doctor will give you specific instructions on how to prepare for your chemotherapy treatments.
Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Since chemotherapy treatment can kill cancerous and healthy cells, it is common for most patients to experience side effects from treatment. The side effects vary based on the type of chemotherapy you’re given, and how your body reacts to it. Talk to your cancer care team about anything you’re experiencing so that they can help you find as much relief as possible.
Many cancer patients also receive shots to boost their body’s white blood cells which can help your body repair quicker and fight infection.
Common side effects of chemo include:
- Appetite changes
- Unexplained bleeding
- Hair loss
- Hot flashes
- Kidney & bladder changes
- Mouth & throat changes (ie: dry mouth, mouth sores and changes in the condition of your teeth)
- Nausea & vomiting
- Nervous system changes (such as involuntary movements)
- Sexual changes
- Skin & nail changes
For more information on how to prepare for chemotherapy, please visit our ‘Preparing for Chemotherapy’ page