*Chemotherapy facts medical author: Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM
- Chemotherapy is one option available to treat cancer patients.
- The types of medication used and how they are administered depends upon the patient's situation, the type of cancer, and the goal of cancer therapy.
- Chemotherapy options are individualized for each patient. Treatment decisions are usually a collaboration between the patient, family, and cancer doctor.
- There are different goals for chemotherapy. The treatment may be meant to cure the cancer, control its growth and spread, or provide comfort to the patient.
- Chemotherapy affects people in different ways. The most common side effect is fatigue but other more serious complications may occur, depending upon the type of chemotherapy treatment.
- The battle to treat cancer is ongoing. There are many new chemotherapeutic drugs and treatment protocols being developed. Clinical trials may be an option for some patients with cancer, but there is no guarantee that a new drug or treatment will work or is better than standard available treatment.
What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy (also called chemo) is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to destroy cancer cells.
How does chemotherapy work?
Chemotherapy works by stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, which grow and divide quickly.
It can also harm healthy cells that divide quickly, such as those that line your mouth and intestines or cause your hair to grow. Damage to healthy cells may cause side effects. Often, side effects get better or go away after chemotherapy is over.
What does chemotherapy do?
Depending on your type of cancer and how advanced it is, chemotherapy can:
- Cure cancer - when chemotherapy destroys cancer cells to the point that your doctor can no longer detect them in your body and they will not grow back.
- Control cancer - when chemotherapy keeps cancer from spreading, slows its growth, or destroys cancer cells that have spread to other parts of your body.
- Ease cancer symptoms (also called palliative care) - when chemotherapy shrinks tumors that are causing pain or pressure.
How is chemotherapy used?
Sometimes, chemotherapy is used as the only cancer treatment. More often, you will get chemotherapy along with surgery, radiation therapy, or biological therapy. Chemotherapy can:
- Make a tumor smaller before surgery or radiation therapy. This is called neo-adjuvant chemotherapy.
- Destroy cancer cells that may remain after surgery or radiation therapy. This is called adjuvant chemotherapy.
- Help radiation therapy and biological therapy work better.
- Destroy cancer cells that have come back (recurrent cancer) or spread to other parts of your body (metastatic cancer).
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