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Chemotherapy uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells, usually by making them unable to grow and divide. Unlike radiation, which focuses on specific areas, chemotherapy usually affects the entire body, which is why it’s often used to treat cancers that have metastasized or spread.
How Chemotherapy Works
Most chemotherapy treatments involve a combination of drugs—sometimes casually referred to as a “cocktail”—tailored to treat the specific type and stage of your cancer. Chemo drugs may also kill healthy cells, but these cells can repair themselves while cancer cells cannot.
Chemotherapy can serve several purposes as part of cancer treatment, including:
- Shrinking a tumor before surgery
- “Cleaning up” cancer cells left behind after surgery
- In combination with other methods (such as radiation therapy) if surgery is not an option or if an earlier cancer has returned
Your chemotherapy can be delivered through several different methods, depending on the type and stage of cancer being treated:
- Intravenous Medication: This is the most common delivery method for chemotherapy, in which the medication is injected directly into a vein through an IV line.
- Oral Medication: Some chemotherapy can be taken as a pill; you’ll be able to take it at home, but make sure to follow your doctor’s directions carefully.
- Topical Cream or Lotion: For certain types of skin cancer, you may be given a cream to rub onto the cancerous patch of skin.
Depending on the type and dosage of drugs involved in your chemo, your doctor may have specific instructions about eating, drinking, taking medications and other activities prior to your appointment. Make sure you understand and follow these instructions closely.
What to Expect From Chemotherapy
If you are taking chemotherapy through oral medication or through a topical cream, you’ll be able to take it at home; just make sure to follow your doctor’s instructions exactly.
If your doctor has prescribed intravenous chemo, you will have your treatments at a clinic or hospital. At your first appointment, a catheter or a port may be inserted and remain in place for the duration of your treatment cycle. This will make it easier for your treatment team to get to larger veins each time chemo is given.
Because there are many different approaches to chemotherapy, make sure you talk to your doctor about exactly what to expect.
Depending on the type and dosage of drugs you receive in your chemotherapy treatments, you may experience one or more of the following side effects:
- Higher risk of infection due to a low white blood cell count
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
Your doctor may prescribe medication to manage any side effects, most of which usually go away when your chemotherapy treatment is complete.
- When you can return to normal activities
- When to schedule a follow-up appointment with him or her
- Which tests will need to be done and when
- Any special dietary instructions
- Warning signs to watch out for
Learn more about cancer treatment:
- Cancer Surgery
- Radiation Therapy
- Cell & Gene Therapy
- Hormone Therapy
- Biological Therapy/Immunotherapy
- Clinical Trials
For more information about chemotherapy at the Methodist Cancer Center or to make an appointment, call us at 713-790-2700.