How does chemotherapy work?

What Is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is a broad term for the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Learn how it works and what you might expect from treatment.

By Sara Altshul

Medically Reviewed by Kalyan Banda, MD

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Chemotherapy may be administered as pills, injections, or infusions into an artery or vein.
Chemotherapy may be administered as pills, injections, or infusions into an artery or vein.
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Chemotherapy is a term for the various drug therapies used to treat cancer. In use since the 1950s, chemotherapy — or chemo, for short — now encompasses more than 100 different cancer-fighting drugs.

How Chemotherapy Works

Cancer starts when changes occur in one of the body’s trillions of cells, and the affected cell begins reproducing and making more cancer cells. Different types of cancer affect different organs and different parts of the body. Left untreated, cancer can spread.

Chemo drugs are specifically designed to stop cancer cells from dividing, as well as to target and kill them. The drugs may also affect healthy cells, which can usually repair themselves.

How Chemotherapy Is Administered

Chemotherapy can be administered in a variety of ways, depending on the type of cancer you have and where it is located. These include:

  • Injections into the muscles or under the skin
  • Infusions into an artery or vein
  • Pills that you take by mouth
  • Injections into the fluid around your spinal cord or brain

Sometimes, a healthcare practitioner may perform a minor surgical procedure to implant a thin catheter, called a central line or a port, into a vein to make it easier to administer the drugs.

Types of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy plans (along with other cancer-fighting therapies, such as radiation or immunotherapy) can have different goals, depending on your type of cancer.

Curative chemotherapy. This treatment plan is designed to wipe out all the cancer cells in your body and permanently cure the cancer.

Adjuvant chemotherapy.This treatment is usually given after surgery to kill any cancer cells that may remain undetected. This helps prevent recurrences of the cancer.

Neoadjuvant chemotherapy.Because some cancer tumors are too large to be removed surgically, this type of chemo aims to shrink the tumor so that it can be removed surgically, which can potentially mean less drastic surgery.

Neoadjuvant chemotherapy is also given in cases where there is a high likelihood that the cancer has spread but is too small to see; this is called micrometastasis. Chemotherapy kills micrometastases and prevents cancer recurrences, while the primary tumor is removed by surgery.

Palliative chemotherapy.When the cancer has spread to the extent that it is impossible to completely remove it all, a doctor might use palliative chemotherapy to relieve symptoms, slow its progress or stop the cancer temporarily, and to make complications less likely.

Potential Side Effects

Chemotherapy drugs are divided into several different drug groups; each works in different ways. Knowing how a drug works is important in predicting the side effects it may cause.

Most people worry about the chemotherapy side effects they may experience, but the fear is often greater than the reality.

Chemo drugs are sometimes used in combination, depending on the type of cancer and its severity. Some interfere with the DNA inside cells, some interfere with enzymes involved with DNA replication, and some stop cell division. The side effects you may experience will depend on your specific chemotherapy treatment.

Side effects can occur because chemotherapy attacks healthy cells as well as cancer cells. Those healthy cells may include blood-producing cells, hair cells, and cells within the digestive system and mucous membranes.

Short-term effects of chemo may include:

Your doctor can often effectively treat these side effects. For example, blood transfusions can improve anemia, antiemetic drugs can relieve nausea and vomiting, and antibiotics and antifungal drugs can treat infections.

RELATED: 10 Things Every Cancer Patient Should Know About Chemo

CancerCare, an organization that provides support, counseling, education, and financial assistance for people with cancer and their families offers a free guide to help you cope with side effects.

If your side effects are particularly bad, your doctor might perform blood tests to see if you might need a lower dose or a longer break between treatments.

According to the American Cancer Society, it’s important to remember that the benefits of the chemo likely outweigh the risks of treatment. For most people, side effects usually end sometime after treatments end. How long that takes is different for each person.

How Will Chemo Affect My Life?

The extent to which chemotherapy interferes with your normal daily routine depends on several factors, including how advanced your cancer is at the time of diagnosis, and which treatments your doctors choose.

Many people can continue working and managing a daily routine during chemo, but some people find that the fatigue and other side effects slow them down. But you may be able to get around some of the effects treatment has on your life by having your chemo treatments late in the day or right before the weekend.

Federal and state laws may require your employer to allow flexible work hours during your treatment.

Video: What to Expect During Chemotherapy

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Date: 06.12.2018, 15:34 / Views: 95253