Chemotherapy is the name of a group of drugs that destroy cancer cells. Unlike surgery or radiation therapy that treat cancer in a specific area, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment that travels throughout the body.
Chemotherapy may be given alone. However, it is often used along with surgery and/or radiation therapy in the following ways:
- Chemotherapy with or without radiation therapy is sometimes given before surgery to shrink the tumor, making it easier to remove or allowing for a less extensive surgery. This is called neoadjuvant chemotherapy.
- Chemotherapy given after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells is called adjuvant chemotherapy.
- Chemotherapy can be used as a radiosensitizer making radiation treatments more effective.
- Chemotherapy can be used with or without surgery or radiation therapy if the cancer recurs or spreads to other parts of the body.
Why Do I Need Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is given to:
- Cure cancer
- Prevent cancer from coming back
- Slow the growth of cancer
- Control symptoms caused by cancer
Your medical oncologist is an expert who will plan your treatments based on the kind of cancer you have, where the cancer is located, the side effects the cancer and/or treatments have on your body and your general health.
How Will I Get My Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy can be given in many ways. Some of the most common ways are:
- As a pill - by mouth (orally)
- Into a vein or central catheter - intravenous (IV)
- As an injection (shot) under the skin (sub Q) or into a muscle (IM)
- Into an artery directly to the tumor - intra-arterially (IA)
What About Side Effects?
As with surgery and radiation therapy, chemotherapy can be a scary thing. You may hear stories about the side effects of chemotherapy from well-meaning friends and relatives. However, research is continually improving the way we give chemotherapy and manage the side effects making it more effective and easier to tolerate.
Fatigue is the most common side effect of chemotherapy. Many side effects of chemotherapy occur because of the effect the drugs have on the normal fast growing cells in the body. The specific side effects you might expect from your treatment will be discussed with you when the treatment plan is made.
As the most important member of your team, it is very important to discuss your side effects and concerns with your doctors and nurses. They are experts in managing these symptoms.