Chemotherapy 101

Published October 19th, 2020 by Dr. Sara Fisher, PharmD
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley

Cancer. It is the dreaded “C” word. Maybe you or someone you know has cancer. Maybe you see cancer in TV shows and movies - the bald heads and dark circles under the eyes. Whether you have a personal experience or see it in the media, cancer is scary. 

Chemotherapy is one way to treat cancer. Marie Curie said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.” Read on to learn the basics of chemotherapy so that any fear can be replaced with understanding. 

What is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy (chemo) is a type of medication used to treat cancer. Cancer cells usually grow quickly, so chemo works by destroying cells in the body that are growing or multiplying quickly. 

How is Chemo Given?

There are many types of chemo given in many different forms. Some of the common dosage forms of chemo include the following:

  • • Oral – tablets, pills or capsules to swallow by mouth
  • • Intravenous (IV) – through the vein, given over minutes, hours, or days
  • • Shots – injected into the stomach, buttocks, or arm 

Chemo may be taken at home when it is oral. Infusions or shots are often given in an infusion clinic or in the hospital. Sometimes chemo is just one drug, and sometimes it is a combination of drugs. Chemo is also used with in combination with other treatment such as surgery or radiation.

Chemo is given on a schedule that depends on the medications chosen and the type of cancer. The schedule for chemo is often referred to as a cycle. One cycle is usually 2 to 6 weeks, and then it will repeat. 

Depending on the chemo used, it may be given daily, weekly, every other week, monthly, etc. Some chemo is given for one cycle, some is given for four cycles or more – and sometimes people use chemo for years to control the cancer growth. 

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Why Use Chemo?

The oncologist, or doctor who specializes in cancer, will review treatment options for a person with cancer. The decision to use chemo will be based on the type of cancer, the stage of cancer, other health conditions, and test results. Some of the goals of treatment include the following:

  • Kill all cancer cells 
  • Shrink a tumor before surgery
  • Kill remaining cancer after surgery
  • Slow cancer growth
  • Decrease symptoms of cancer
  • Control growth of cancer 

If you or someone you know has cancer, ask the oncologist questions to help you understand why chemo may or may not be the right treatment. Good questions include asking about all treatment options, goals of treatment, side effects, and cost of treatment.

What About the Side Effects?

One of the most overwhelming parts of cancer is chemo and the side effects. The list below is long – but please remember that not every person gets every side effect. Also, contrary to popular belief, there are many chemo medications that do NOT cause hair loss. 

Chemo cannot tell the difference between normal cells and cancer cells; this is how people get side effects. Some of the normal cells that multiply quickly include your blood cells, taste buds, stomach cells, and hair/nails/skin cells. As a result, common side effects for most chemo include the following:

  • Decreased blood cells
    • Less white blood cells = increased infection risk
    • Less red blood cells = fatigue and loss of energy
    • Less platelets = increased bleeding risk
    • Loss or change of taste
    • Mouth sores
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Diarrhea or constipation
    • Hair loss or thinning
    • Dry skin
    • Skin sensitive to sun
    • Brittle nails or loss of nails

It is important to know that side effects are not directly related to effectiveness. If you do not have side effects, it does not mean the chemo is not working (you are just lucky!). If you do have side effects, it does not mean the chemo is working. 

Most side effects will go away within a few months of finishing chemo. However, some chemo can cause side effects that either do not go away or appear months to years after chemo. Be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist if you are at risk for long-lasting side effects.

Tips for Life During Chemo

After reading through those side effects, you are probably thinking life is terrible with chemo. While it is true life will not be “normal,” here are some basic, helpful tips:

  • Try to stay well-rested
  • Drink a lot of water
  • Accept help from friends and family
  • Keep your oncologist informed of any side effects
  • Stay positive

Bottom Line

Cancer is a terrible disease that affects so many people. Chemo is commonly used to treat cancer. Remember Marie Curie’s advice to replace fear with knowledge. Understanding how chemo is used, why it is used, and what to expect while on chemo can help dismiss the fear of the unknown. 

Reference List

American Cancer Society. Chemotherapy. Available from: Published 2020. Accessed 30 Sept 2020. 

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Published October 19th, 2020 by Dr. Sara Fisher, PharmD
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley

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