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What is Chemotherapy ?

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Chemotherapy is a general term for treatments that use chemical agents (drugs) to kill cancer cells. Many different kinds of drugs are used, either alone or in combination, to treat different cancers. The specific drug or combination used is chosen to best combat the type and extent of cancer present.

Chemotherapy is a common type of cancer treatment that uses drugs or medications to treat many types of cancer. It works by targeting and eliminating rapidly dividing cancer cells in the body. Chemotherapy is often given for two main reasons. First, chemotherapy may control or eliminate tumors to relieve symptoms, such as pain.

Chemotherapy drugs are given most often intravenously (IV) or by mouth (orally). There are several other methods of giving chemotherapy, but these are the most common. There is not one universal chemotherapy drug that is used to treat cancer; there are actually several different types, each uniquely effective against specific types of cancer.

Why is Chemotherapy Used to Treat Cancer?

Depending on the type of cancer and how advanced it is, chemotherapy can be used for different goals:

  • To cure the cancer. Cancer is considered cured when the patient remains free of evidence of cancer cells.
  • To control the cancer. This is done by keeping the cancer from spreading; slowing the cancer's growth; and killing cancer cells that may have spread to other parts of the body from the original tumor.
  • To relieve symptoms that the cancer may cause. Relieving symptoms such as pain can help patients live more comfortably.

Is Chemotherapy Used With Other Cancer Treatments?

Sometimes chemotherapy is the only treatment a patient receives. More often, however, chemotherapy is used in addition to surgery, radiation therapy, and/or biological therapy to:

  • Shrink a tumor before surgery or radiation therapy. This is called neo-adjuvant therapy.
  • Help destroy any cancer cells that may remain after surgery and/or radiation therapy. This is called adjuvant chemotherapy.
  • Make radiation therapy and biological therapy work better.
  • Help destroy cancer if it recurs or has spread to other parts of the body from the original tumor.

Which Drugs Are Given?

Some chemotherapy drugs are used for many different types of cancer, while others might be used for just one or two types of cancer. Your doctor recommends a treatment plan based on:

  • What kind of cancer you have.
  • What part of the body the cancer is found.
  • The effect of cancer on your normal body functions.
  • Your general health.

Where Will I Get Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy can be given in many different places: at home, a doctor's office, a clinic, a hospital's outpatient department, or as an &quot;inpatient&quot; in a hospital. The choice of where you get chemotherapy depends on which drug or drugs you are getting, your insurance, and sometimes your own and your doctor's wishes. Most patients receive their treatment as an &quot;outpatient&quot; and are not hospitalized. Sometimes, a patient starting chemotherapy may need to stay at the hospital for a short time so that the medicine's effects can be watched closely and any needed changes can be made.

How Often and for How Long Will I Get Chemotherapy?

How often and how long you get chemotherapy depends on:

  • The kind of cancer you have.
  • The goals of the treatment.
  • The drugs that are used.
  • How your body responds to them.

You may get treatment every day, every week, or every month. Chemotherapy is often given in cycles that include treatment periods alternated with rest periods. Rest periods give your body a chance to build healthy new cells and regain its strength. Your health care provider will tell you how long and how often you may expect to get treatment.

Sticking with your treatment schedule is very important for the drugs to work right. Schedules may need to be changed for holidays and other reasons. If you miss a treatment session or skip a dose of the drug, contact your doctor.

Sometimes, your doctor may need to delay a treatment based on the results of certain blood tests. Your doctor will let you know what to do during this time and when to start your treatment again.

How Is Chemotherapy Given?

Chemotherapy can be given in several different ways:

  • By vein (intravenous, or IV, treatment): Chemotherapy is most often given intravenously (IV), through a vein. Usually a thin needle is inserted into a vein on the hand or lower arm at the beginning of each treatment session and is removed at the end of the session.
  • Patients who need to have many IV treatments may have chemotherapy delivered by IV through catheters (soft, thin, flexible tubes), ports (small round plastic or metal discs placed under the skin), or pumps. These can stay in place as long as needed and eliminate the need for needle sticks at each treatment.
  • By mouth (orally): The drug is given in pill, capsule, or liquid form. You swallow the drug, just as you do many other medicines.
  • By injection: A needle and syringe are used to give the drug in one of several ways:
  • o Intramuscularly, or IM. (Into a muscle)
  • o Subcutaneously, or SQ or SC. (Under the skin)
  • o Intralesionally, or IL. (Directly into a cancerous area in the skin)
  • Topically: The drug is applied on the surface of the skin.

How Will I Feel During Chemotherapy?

Most people receiving chemotherapy find that they tire easily, but many feel well enough to continue to lead active lives. Each person and treatment is different, so it is not always possible to tell exactly how you will react. Your general state of health, the type and extent of cancer you have, and the kind of drugs you are receiving can all affect how well you feel.

You may want to have someone available to drive you to and from treatment if, for example, you are taking medicine for nausea or vomiting that could make you tired. You may also feel especially tired from the chemotherapy as early as one day after a treatment and for several days. It may help to schedule your treatment when you can take off the day of, and the day after, your treatment. If you have young children, you may want to schedule the treatment when you have someone to help at home the day of and at least the day after your treatment. Ask your doctor when your greatest fatigue or other side effects are likely to occur.

Most people can continue working while receiving chemotherapy. However, you may need to change your work schedule for a while if your chemotherapy makes you feel very tired or have other side effects. Talk with your employer about your needs and wishes. You may be able to agree on a part-time schedule, find an area for a short nap during the day, or perhaps you can do some of your work at home.

Under Federal and state laws, some employers may be required to let you work a flexible schedule to meet your treatment needs. To find out about your on-the-job protections, check with a social worker, or your congressional or state representative. NCI's publication &quot;Facing Forward: Life After Cancer Treatment&quot; also has information on work-related concerns.

Can I Take Other Medicines While I Am Getting Chemotherapy?

Some medicines may interfere or react with the effects of your chemotherapy. Give your doctor a list of all the medicines you take before you start treatment. Include:
The name of each drug
The dosage
The reason you take it
How often you take it
Remember to tell your doctor about all over-the-counter remedies, including vitamins, laxatives, medicines for allergies, indigestion, and colds, aspirin, ibuprofen, or other pain relievers, and any mineral or herbal supplements. Your doctor can tell you if you should stop taking any of these remedies before you start chemotherapy. After your treatments begin, be sure to check with your doctor before taking any new medicines or stopping the ones you are already taking.

How Will I Know if My Chemotherapy Is Working?

Your doctor and nurse will use several ways to see how well your treatments are working. You may have physical exams and tests often. Always feel free to ask your doctor about the test results and what they show about your progress.

Tests and exams can tell a lot about how chemotherapy is working; however, side effects tell very little. Sometimes, people think that if they have no side effects, the drugs are not working, or, if they do have side effects, the drugs are working well. But side effects vary so much from person to person, and from drug to drug, that side effects are not a sign of whether the treatment is working or not. 

What Are The Chemotherapy Side Effects?

Because cancer cells may grow and divide more rapidly than normal cells, many anticancer drugs are made to kill growing cells. But certain normal, healthy cells also multiply quickly, and chemotherapy can affect these cells, too. This damage to normal cells causes side effects. The fast-growing, normal cells most likely to be affected are blood cells forming in the bone marrow and cells in the digestive tract mouth, stomach, intestines, esophagus), reproductive system (sexual organs), and hair follicles. Some anticancer drugs may affect cells of vital organs, such as the heart, kidney, bladder, lungs, and nervous system.

You may have none of these side effects or just a few. The kinds of side effects you have, and how severe they are, depend on the type and dose of chemotherapy you get and how your body reacts. Before starting chemotherapy, your doctor will discuss the side effects that you are most likely to get with the drugs you will be receiving. Before starting the treatment, you will be asked to sign a consent form. You should be given all the facts about treatment, including the drugs you will be given and their side effects, before you sign the consent form. 

How Long Do Chemotherapy Side Effects Last?

Normal cells usually recover when chemotherapy is over, so most side effects gradually go away after treatment ends, and the healthy cells have a chance to grow normally. The time it takes to get over side effects depends on many things, including your overall health and the kind of chemotherapy you have been taking.

Most people have no serious long-term problems from chemotherapy. However, on some occasions, chemotherapy can cause permanent changes or damage to the heart, lungs, nerves, kidneys, reproductive or other organs. And certain types of chemotherapy may have delayed effects, such as a second cancer, that show up many years later. Ask your doctor about the chances of any serious, long-term effects that can result from the treatment you are receiving (but remember to balance your concerns with the immediate threat of your cancer).

Great progress has been made in preventing and treating some of the common as well as rare serious side effects of chemotherapy. Many new drugs and treatment methods destroy cancer more effectively while doing less harm to the body's healthy cells.

The side effects of chemotherapy can be unpleasant, but they must be measured against the treatment's ability to destroy cancer. Medicines can help prevent some side effects such as nausea. Sometimes people receiving chemotherapy become discouraged about the length of time their treatment is taking or the side effects they are having. If that happens to you, talk to your doctor or nurse. They may be able to suggest ways to make side effects easier to deal with or reduce them.

( Courtesy: Novartis Oncology, US )


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