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Understanding Chemotherapy

Knowing what chemotherapy does, and when and how it is given, may make you feel less anxious about starting treatment.  Chemotherapy is a way to treat cancer using  a single medication or a combination of medications. These medications destroy cancer cells.  It may be used along with surgery or radiation therapy to shrink a tumor or prevent its spread. It may help cure or control cancer.  It may also help relieve cancer symptoms, such as pain. 

Image of woman undergoing procedure
Chemotherapy is often given in an outpatient setting.

How Chemotherapy Works

Chemotherapy kills growing cancer cells. More than one medication may be used. This allows the growing cells to be attacked at more than one stage of growth. Side effects occur because chemotherapy acts on normal cells, too. Fast-growing cells are most affected. This includes cells that make up hair, the digestive tract, and blood. Chemotherapy is given in cycles, the schedule depends on which medications are used. 

The Goals of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can reduce the number of cancer cells. As a result, it may:

  • Cure cancer

  • Cause remission (no active symptoms of disease)

  • Kill any cancer cells remaining after surgery

  • Control cancer for a period of time

  • Reduce symptoms (such as pain)

During Treatment

Some chemotherapy medications are given in the hospital by a specially trained nurse.  In these cases, you're given medication to help you relax and sleep during treatment.  You may stay in the hospital while you recover from the treatment, usually a day or so.  Other chemotherapy medications can be given in the doctor's office or an outpatient center.  You're awake during these treatments, and go home the same day.  During each treatment, medication is sent into the veins through an intravenous (IV) line. 

After treatment

Side effects from chemotherapy are common.  After each treatment, you'll probably have to rest and take it easy while your body recovers.  Cystoscopy and urine cytology may be done regularly to check whether the cancer has come back.

Short-Term Side Effects

Side effects vary depending on which medications are used

  • Painful mouth sores

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Fatigue (low energy)

  • Weight loss

  • Hair loss

Risks and Complications

There are some risks with chemotherapy, but the benefits usually outweigh the risks. Risks and complications vary depending on which medications are used.

  • Low white blood cell count

  • Severe infection (go to the emergency room right away if you develop a fever)

  • Kidney damage (temporary or permanent)

  • Nerve damage (temporary or permanent)

  • Hearing loss ( temporary or permanent)

  • Heart damage

© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.