Chemotherapy, commonly referred to as chemo, is the use of chemical compounds (drugs) that kill cancer cells used to treat cancer.
How Chemotherapy Works
Chemotherapy is a traditional form of cancer treatment dating back to the 1950s; since then, these medications have been tested and used many times. There are many types of chemo: drugs, some intravenous, others are pills, and your doctor will determine which drugs to administer based on the type, stage and severity of your cancer, as well as your overall health and ability to tolerate these medications. At times, genetic testing can be used to determine the best drug option or overall treatment option for you.
In some cases, chemotherapy is the only method of treatment needed to keep cancer from spreading, slow cancer growth, shrink tumors or cure cancer. Oftentimes chemo is used in conjunction with other therapies such as surgery or procedures such as radiation therapy.
How Chemotherapy is Administered
Depending on your specific cancer, your chemotherapy treatments may be given in the following ways:
- As an oral pill or liquid
- As an injection directly into the muscle or tissue
- Directly into the bloodstream (intravenously or IV)
- Directly into a body cavity, such as the stomach (intracavity chemo)
- Into your spinal canal
- Directly into the bladder (intravesical)
- Into a main artery that "feeds" the tumor (intra-arterial)
- Through a needle into the tumor (intralesional)
- Applied topically (on the skin)
Chemo is commonly administered in cycles to give the body a chance to rest and recover. These chemo cycles may be given daily, weekly, every few weeks, or monthly. Since it is hard to predict how you will feel after chemo, it is important to have someone accompany you so they can help you get home safely. If you do not have a support person, your Inspira cancer coordinator, social work and other team members can help connect you with needed services.
Side Effects of Chemotherapy
While chemotherapy can be quite effective in treating certain cancers, chemotherapy drugs reach and impact all parts of the body, not just the cancer cells. Because of this, there can be many side effects during treatment. The use of newer and more targeted medications as well as the availability of supportive medications can sometimes lessen symptoms. Your care team at Inspira will work to proactively manage any side effects of treatment. Being able to anticipate these side effects can help you and your caregivers prepare and, in some cases, prevent these symptoms from occurring.
The most common side effects of chemotherapy can include, but are not limited to:
- Extreme fatigue
- Increased risk for infection
- Easy bruising and bleeding
- Mouth and throat sores
- Nausea and vomiting
- Hair loss
- Skin and nail changes
- Nerve damage
- No desire to eat
- Weight gain or loss
- Changes in your memory or thinking
Many of these side effects can be prevented or managed with treatment, and most will subside after treatment ends.