Depending on your type and stage of cancer, your medical oncologist may recommend chemotherapy — either alone or in combination with radiation therapy.

This effective treatment involves the use of cancer-fighting drugs designed to target tumors and destroy their cells. They can be administered in a variety of ways including IV, catheterization or pill form.

Unlike surgery or radiation where therapy can be locally targeted at the site of the tumor, chemotherapy is a systemic approach because the drugs have to run through your entire system to work. The word chemotherapy or “chemo” tends to frightens people, but educating yourself on what chemotherapy is and the role it plays in your overall regimen, you’ll feel more confident and in control over your cancer treatment.

Chemo may be used to:

  • Keep the cancer from spreading.
  • Make the cancer grow slower.
  • Kill cancer cells that may have spread to other parts of the body (metastasized – meh-TAS-tuh-sized).
  • Make side effects from cancer better, like pain or blockages
  • Cure cancer.

The body is made up of trillions of cells. Cancer starts when something causes changes in a normal cell. This cancer cell then grows out of control and makes more cancer cells.

If cancer isn’t treated, it can spread to other places in your body and cause more problems. Chemo kills cells that grow fast, like cancer cells by inhibiting cell division, known as mitosis. The drugs prevent the cancer cells from growing anymore. However, chemotherapy drugs don’t discriminate; they will attack any fast-growing/fast-dividing cells, like those found in hair follicles. This is why many patients undergoing chemotherapy experience side-effects such as hair loss. The good news is, most normal cells can fix themselves.

Chemotherapy is usually administered intravenously (I.V.), but some types of drugs can be given orally, injected or applied topically (applied to the skin of the targeted area). Some patients may only have chemotherapy as their treatment regimen, while most patients undergo a combination of therapies, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy or surgery. 

Here’s why:

  • Chemo may be used to shrink tumors before surgery or radiation.
  • It may be used after surgery or radiation to help kill any cancer cells that are left.
  • It may be used with other treatments if the cancer comes back.

How often you get chemotherapy depends on what type of cancer you have, and what stage you’re at. You may get chemo daily, weekly or monthly.  Chemotherapy treatments are usually spread out over time to give your body time to recover and grow new, healthy cells.

The importance of good communication.

Be sure to communicate with your cancer care team.  Never be afraid to ask a question or make a comment. Your cancer care team are medical professionals, devoted to your recovery. They want to help ensure you have the best experience possible. Bring a notebook to your appointment with your questions written down, so you don’t forget. You might also want to write down your provider’s answers too. Here are some common questions you might want to ask: 

  • Why am I getting chemo?
  • Will I be cured?
  • What else is involved in my treatment?
  • How will I know if it’s working?
  • What if chemo doesn’t work?
  • How long will I need treatment?
  • Can I still take my other medication while I’m on chemotherapy (prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines)?
  • What side effects should I watch for?
  • What number should I call if I have a question after-hours?
  • What can I do to prepare myself?
  • How will this affect my regular routine?  Will I need to quit school/my job?
  • How am I going to pay for this?

Things to be aware of while on chemotherapy:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Hair loss
  • Lowered blood cell counts.  This can lead to issues such as anemia (uh-NEE-me-uh), a lowered immune system and heavier than normal bleeding.
  • Mouth sores
  • Skin irritations – chemo can cause redness, itching, drying and sometimes even acne.
  • Lowered sex drive
  • Infertility
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Emotional issues

What can I do to take care of myself during chemo?

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Get exercise and fresh air if your doctor says you can.
  • Ask your cancer care team about alcohol. 
  • Check with your cancer care team before taking vitamins or supplements. 
  • Keep thinking about the treatment goals. 
  • Learn more about your cancer and treatment. 
  • Engage in a hobby to take your mind off things. 

Will chemo affect my family?

It is important to get plenty of rest while undergoing chemo. If friends and family ask how they can help, take advantage of their request. And if you need extra help, just ask. Most people are very happy and willing to lend a helping hand.

  • Ask people to take turns cooking foods that you think you can eat.
  • Ask a friend or neighbor to do little jobs for you or run errands until you feel better.
  • Ask someone to drive you and keep you company during treatment.

Follow-up care:

Follow-up care is a must regardless of your type of cancer. Your cancer care team will want to monitor your progress and check to be sure the cancer has not returned. There’s no way to know if this will happen to you without monitoring.

Here are some questions you may want to ask your doctor after your chemo treatment has ended and follow-up care begins:

  • When can I go back to doing things I used to do?
  • How often will I need to see you?
  • Which tests will be done and why?
  • Do I need to be on a special diet?
  • What should I watch for to know if the cancer is back?
  • When should I call the doctor?

Source: The American Cancer Society: