What Is Chemotherapy?

Medically Reviewed on 2/15/2023

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Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment used to kill cancer cells, which may be used alone or with other treatments such as surgery, radiation, or hormonal therapy..

Chemotherapy is an aggressive cancer treatment that uses powerful drugs to kill fast-growing cancer cells. It can be used alone or in combination with other therapies, such as surgery, radiation, or hormonal therapy.

While surgery and radiation therapy are designed to affect only the target site, chemotherapy affects the entire body. Sometimes, it can affect healthy cells as well, resulting in various side effects. The use of combination therapy depends on the following:

  • Type of cancer
  • Location of the tumor
  • How fast the tumor can spread
  • The overall health of the patient
  • Personal preference

Can cancer be cured with chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is effective against cancer in the following ways:

  • Helps shrink tumor size and relieves pain and other symptoms
  • Slows down tumor growth and reduces the risk of recurrence
  • Prevents the metastasis of cancer cells to other organs

What drugs are used in chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy drugs are categorized based on how they work, including their chemical structure and interaction with other drugs. Chemotherapy can also be administered in different ways:

  • Pills or liquids
  • Intramuscular or intracutaneous shots
  • Direct infusion into organs
  • Intravenous infusions

The drugs used in chemotherapy include

  • Alkylating agents: Keep cancer cells from reproducing or making their own copies by damaging their DNA. Alkylating agents treat various types of cancer such as lung, breast, ovarian, leukemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma and sarcoma. As these drugs affect the DNA, they destroy the healthy bone marrow and result in leukemia. Examples of alkylating agents are as follows:
  • Nitrosoureas: Are a special type of alkylating agent that travels through the brain. These help treat brain tumors. Following are a few examples of nitrosoureas:
    • Carmustine
    • Lomustine
    • Streptozocin
  • Antimetabolites: Interfere with the functioning of DNA and RNA. This may result in the inability of DNA to make its copies. Antimetabolites are used to treat tumors of the breast, ovaries, intestine and leukemia (blood-forming tissues). Following are a few examples of antimetabolites:
  • Antitumor antibiotics: Anthracyclines are antitumor antibiotics that help treat most types of cancer. These interfere with the action of enzymes that are involved in DNA replication. The major problem with these drugs is that their usage may result in heart damage. Following are a few examples of antitumor antibiotics:
    • Daunorubicin
    • Doxorubicin
    • Epirubicin
    • Idarubicin
    • Valrubicin
  • Mitotic inhibitors: Also known as plant alkaloids. These stop cells from dividing to form new cells. Mitotic inhibitors include taxanes and vinca alkaloids.
  • Following are the examples of taxanes:
    • Cabazitaxel
    • Nab paclitaxel
    • Paclitaxel
  • Following are the examples of vinca alkaloids:
    • Vinblastine
    • vincristine
    • Vincristine liposomal
    • Vinorelbine
  • Corticosteroids: Natural hormone-like drugs, which are used to treat cancer or other illnesses. Following are a few examples of corticosteroids:

How long does chemotherapy last?

Generally, a course of chemo treatment typically lasts three to six months. One course can have multiple on-and-off sessions, and there can be multiple cycles in a session. Each cycle can have multiple treatments. These sessions might occur once daily, once weekly, or at any other frequency. The effect of the treatment can last a few weeks to a few months, depending on the following factors:

  • Type of cancer
  • Type of chemotherapy
  • How well the body responds to chemo
  • Type of drugs used

What are the side effects of chemotherapy?

Common side effects include

These side effects can be treated or cured once the treatment is finished.

Long-term side effects

How is a patient prepared for chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is an aggressive procedure with various side effects that may affect the patient's mental and physical health. It is always important to prepare the patient for the risks and benefits of the procedure. The following tips may help the patient before the treatment:

  • Making adjustments at work
  • Arranging a maid to help
  • Being aware of the side effects
  • Joining support groups
  • Undergoing tests and procedures to confirm if their body is ready for the chemo
  • Dental checkups to treat existing infections


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Medically Reviewed on 2/15/2023
Image source: Getty Images