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April 14, 2023

What is chemotherapy?

In Cancer Treatment

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What is chemotherapy?

  • Chemotherapy is medication used to destroy cancer cells. This may cure the cancer or slow its growth. It may also ease cancer symptoms by shrinking tumors that are causing problems.
    The medication can be delivered in several ways, including:
  • Given in an infusion through an IV line—the most common method
  • Given in an injection
  • Put directly into an area of the body near the tumor
  • Taken by mouth

Which types of cancer are treated with chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy may be used in specific situations to treat many kinds of cancer, including the following:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Brain tumors
  • Breast cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Lung cancer
  • Lymphoma
  • Oral and throat cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Testicular cancer

What are some common side effects of chemotherapy?

Being treated with chemotherapy can affect not only cancer cells, but also some normal cells. This may lead to side effects, depending on the type and amount of medication used and the person’s response to it. After treatment, the normal cells usually recover, and most side effects fade away. But during treatment, common side effects include the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Mouth sores
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Changes in taste or appetite
  • Skin problems
  • Fever or chills

How long does chemotherapy last?

That differs by the specific drugs being given to a patient, which vary depending on the type of cancer being treated and the individual characteristics of a patient. Chemotherapy is often given in cycles, commonly a few weeks at a time, in which treatment periods alternate with breaks to give the body a chance to recover. The number of days or weeks of chemotherapy in each treatment period varies, as does the total number of cycles.

How can you prepare for chemotherapy?

If you will be starting chemotherapy soon:

  • Prepare for fatigue, the most common side effect. Plan to get extra rest on the day of and day after treatment.
  • Know that chemotherapy may make it easier for you to get infections. Ask your healthcare provider about precautions to protect yourself.
  • Be aware that side effects sometimes make it harder to eat. Talk with your provider about ways to deal with eating problems. Also, consider consulting a dietitian for advice on getting all the nutrition you need. 
  • Talk with your employer and human resources department. Discuss any time away from work or adjustments in your job that you may need during treatment.
  • Keep in close contact with your doctor’s clinic about any problems. The effects of chemotherapy vary greatly from one person to the next. If there are any issues that are concerning to you, your oncologist and their team would like to be informed. They can clarify if there are ways to help and whether adjustments in the treatment need to be made.

How can you support a loved one through this treatment?

If a loved one is undergoing chemotherapy:

  • Offer to help with driving, household chores, and/or childcare on treatment days and for at least one day afterward.
  • Keep your distance if you have a fever, flu symptoms, or other signs of infection.
  • Volunteer to grocery shop or cook for your loved one. Ask about any special dietary needs or food preferences.




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