How Chemotherapy Works: An Introductory Guide

By Ashley Henshaw. May 7th 2016

Many people who are diagnosed with cancer are advised to undergo chemotherapy in order to treat their disease. This type of treatment can be very effective in eliminating or stopping the spread of cancer, but it does have some risks to consider as well. This article includes all the basics about chemotherapy, including how it works, what to expect when undergoing treatment and the potential side effects.

What Is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy, often referred to simply as “chemo,” is the use of drugs to treat cancer. There are more than 100 chemotherapy drugs that can be used in different combinations or individually to treat specific types of cancer. The drugs work by stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells or by actually destroying those cells.

Chemotherapy is used for several purposes:

  • Treating cancer: Sometimes chemo is able to destroy cancer cells to the point that cancer can no longer be detected in the body. In many cases, the cancer cells will not grow back once the treatment has reached this point.
  • Controlling cancer: Chemo can also be utilized to stop or slow the spread of cancer to other parts of the body or kill cancer cells that have already spread.
  • Ease cancer symptoms: Chemo can shrink tumors that are causing pain or pressure. This is also known as palliative care.

It’s important to note that chemotherapy is different from radiation therapy and surgery in that chemo affects the entire body, while radiation and surgery affect only the area of the body where the cancer is located. In many cases, chemo is combined with surgery or radiation therapy in order to treat cancer.

What To Expect

The process of your chemotherapy treatment will depend upon which doctor you’re seeing, the type of cancer you have, the severity of you cancer and your insurance policies, among other factors. You may receive your treatment at home, in a clinic, in a hospital or in a doctor’s office. While some patients receive treatments daily, others only need them weekly or monthly. However, most doctors arrange for their patients’ chemo treatment to be given in cycles to allow for periods where the body can rebuild healthy cells.

There are several ways that chemotherapy drugs can be administered. Ask about these different options if you have concerns about how you will receive your chemo treatments:

  • Catheter: This involves the insertion of a catheter in the forearm or hand followed by the drugs being administered through a syringe. The catheter can be placed each time a treatment takes place or a central venous catheter can be temporarily put in in the chest or upper arm for easy access at each treatment. This process takes just a few minutes.
  • IV infusion: This is similar to a catheter except that the drugs are mixed into a solution and administered from a plastic bag through tubing attached to the catheter. This takes between 30 minutes and a few hours to complete.
  • Continuous infusions: This process involves the use of an electronic IV pump which administers the drugs over a period of 1 to 7 days.
  • Injections: The drugs may be injected into certain areas (the spinal canal, a muscle, an artery, etc.) to treat a more specific area of the body.
  • Orally: The drugs may be consumed orally as a pill, a capsule or a liquid.
  • Topical: The drug is administered on the skin as a cream, gel or ointment.

Possible Side Effects

Many of the side effects caused by chemotherapy are a result of the drugs affecting the entire body (including healthy cells) in addition to the areas affected by cancer. Some vulnerable areas that are often affected by chemo include the mouth, the intestines, cells responsible for hair growth and cells in your bone marrow.

The following are some potential side effects of chemo:

  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Hair loss
  • Fever
  • Mouth sores
  • Pain
  • Easy bruising

Your doctor can help you find ways to manage or alleviate these side effects should you experience them. For instance, certain dietary changes can help with diarrhea, and many people choose to purchase a wig or scarf to cover their baldness due to hair loss.

Possible Health Risks

In addition to the side effects that may arise as you undergo chemotherapy treatments, there are also a few possible long-term health risks that may appear after your chemo has been completed. These risks include:

  • Infertility
  • Heart problems
  • Kidney problems
  • Nerve damage
  • Damage to lung tissue
  • Risk of getting another type of cancer

Chemotherapy does have its risks, but it has also saved thousands of lives. Consult with your doctor about all the pros and cons of chemo treatment, and be sure to ask about how your drugs will be administered and how you’ll deal with the side effects.


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