Chemotherapy is used to kill cancer cells throughout the body. Sometimes it is used as the sole treatment method, but frequently it is combined with other cancer treatments such as surgery, radiation, or biological therapies. These additional methods target specific areas and when used with chemotherapy helps the treatment to be more effective at killing cancer cells.

How Does Chemotherapy Work?

The goal of chemotherapy is to destroy cancer cells. However, since cancer cells grow at different rates, your oncologist will choose the best drug to fight the cells specific to your cancer. Depending on your situation, the medications you are given will put your cancer in remission, control it, or relieve your symptoms.

  • Remission – If chemotherapy destroys the cancer cells so that they are no longer able to be detected by a doctor, you are in remission.
  • Control – Chemotherapy drugs can stop cancer from spreading to other parts of the body or slow tumor growth.
  • Relieve – In some instances, chemotherapy cannot put cancer in remission or stop cancer from spreading, but it can shrink existing tumors that may be causing pain.

How is Chemotherapy Given?

There are several ways to receive chemotherapy treatment. Your oncologist will decide which way will be most effective for your situation. The factors to consider are how advanced your cancer is, the goal of your treatment, and how your body responds to the drugs. Usually, chemotherapy is given in cycles. This means you’ll receive the drugs for a period and then you will have a rest period where you do not receive the drugs.

Delivery Methods

You may receive the chemotherapy drugs in one or more of the following ways:

  • Shot – The doctor or nurse will give you an injection (needle) directly into your muscle, in the hip, thigh, arm, or leg.
  • Directly into your body – There are a few methods that directly deliver chemotherapy drugs into specific areas of your body through tubes and a needle or injection. IV (intravenous) delivers drugs directly into your vein. IA (intra-arterial) delivers drugs directly into your artery. IT (intrathecal) injects drugs into your spinal fluid.
  • Oral – The drugs are contained in a pill or a liquid that you take.
  • Topical – The drug is in a cream that you rub on your skin.

How Often Do You Get Chemotherapy?

Cancer treatment generally occurs in cycles where you have periods that you are receiving the drugs alternating with rest periods where no drugs are given. The specific treatment plan developed by your oncologist will determine how often you will receive chemotherapy. Several factors determine how often you receive treatment, such as your type of cancer and the drug or combination of drugs being used.

The length of time it takes to receive your treatment will vary as well. Some treatment plans allow all drugs to be given on a single day during the cycle. Sometimes treatment may span several days in a row, or you may receive chemotherapy on an outpatient or inpatient basis. Treatment can happen daily, weekly or monthly.

What Are the Side Effects of Chemotherapy?

The drugs used in chemotherapy are powerful. They can kill the cancer cells in your body. But they also can destroy healthy cells. It is the damage to your healthy cells that causes side effects. Although everyone reacts differently to treatment, and some side effects depend on the specific medication, there are some common side effects such as nausea, vomiting, hair loss, fatigue, and low blood counts.

Though some side effects may be more severe or disruptive to your life than others, there are tips you can use to help manage them.

  • Nausea – Consider changing your eating habits by eating smaller, more frequent meals, taking your time when you eat or avoiding sweet or greasy foods that upset your stomach.
  • Fatigue – Take naps during the day or try exercising to boost your energy.
  • Hair Loss – Be gentle with your hair. Avoid using harsh chemicals on your hair. Buy a wig before you lose your hair so you will be prepared, and it will closely match your natural hair color. Also, try cutting your hair; having a shorter hairstyle may make your hair appear fuller.

Check out a full list of side effects from chemotherapy treatment and ways to manage them.

Your oncologist is a great person to help you with managing the side effects of treatment. Ask him or her for advice regarding your specific concerns.

How Do I Know the Chemotherapy Treatment is Working?

Your oncologist will monitor progress throughout your treatment. Using certain tests on your blood and urine, X-rays, or different types of scans, your oncologist can access how the cancer is responding to treatment and if adjustments need to be made to the treatment plan.

Certain symptoms could indicate that your cancer has grown spread, but they could also just be side effects of the treatment. Some patients do not have side effects while other do, so the presence or absence of them is not a good way to determine whether the medication is working. It is best to rely on the evidence your oncologist provides through testing to see if the treatment is working.

Questions to Ask Your Oncologist About Chemotherapy

When your doctor informs you that you have cancer and that you will need chemotherapy, it is a lot to take in. At first, you may be overwhelmed, but eventually, you will probably have many questions. Take some time to think about your concerns and details you would want to discuss. Here are some questions about chemotherapy to ask your oncologist:

  1. Why is chemotherapy the best option for me?
  2. What specific type of chemotherapy are you recommending?
  3. What is the goal of this treatment?
  4. Can chemotherapy ease my symptoms?
  5. What side effects might I expect, and what can I do to manage them?
  6. How often will I receive chemotherapy, and how long will my chemotherapy treatments last?
  7. What restrictions (dietary, working, exercising) will I have during my treatment?
  8. When will I be able to return to my normal activities?
  9. What experiences have other patients had with similar chemotherapy regimens?