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Chemotherapy Facts*

*Chemotherapy facts medically edited by: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

  • Chemotherapy is a treatment that uses drugs to damage or kill cancer cells; chemotherapy may reduce cancer symptoms, keep cancer from spreading, and in some cases, cure cancer.
  • Chemotherapy is used to make tumors smaller, destroy hidden cancer cells that may remain after surgery, help radiation therapy and biological therapy work better, and inhibit and/or destroy cancer cells that are recurrent or have spread to other areas of the body (metastatic cancer).
  • There are many dozens of different chemotherapy drugs; the choice of the drug depends on the type of cancer and the patient's overall health situation.
  • There are many types of chemotherapy treatment centers; you may be treated at home, in a doctor's office, in a clinic as an outpatient, in a hospital or during a hospital stay.
  • Chemotherapy dosing and frequency of treatment depends on the type of cancer and how advanced it is, the type of chemotherapy drug, how your body reacts to chemotherapy and the goals of your treatment; chemotherapy often is administered in cycles (for example, one week of chemotherapy and three weeks of rest/recovery).
  • Chemotherapy benefits may be compromised if the patient misses a dose of chemotherapy.
  • Chemotherapy may be given in many ways such as injection into muscles, intra-arterial, intraperitoneal, intravenous, topically or orally; some chemotherapy may be administered through specialized ports and/or pumps.
  • Chemotherapy affects people differently; patients may need help to carry out daily activities during and after some chemotherapy sessions.
  • Patients may need to talk with their employers about how to adjust to working because many employers are required by law to change a chemotherapy patient's work schedule.
  • It is important to tell your doctors and nurses about any over-the-counter drugs and/or prescription medication you take; these compounds may affect your chemotherapy treatment.
  • Many patients experience body changes (side effects such as fatigue or hair loss) during chemotherapy treatment; concerns about body changes should be discussed with your physician.
  • Approximate costs for chemotherapy vary widely; it is best to go over your insurance policies and keep a record of all your treatment costs and insurance claims; this will help you to understand all of the costs and provide records in case costs need to be appealed.
  • Clinical trials of chemotherapy agents allow new treatments to be developed; benefits vary from none to good cancer treatments and the risk are that they may not be as good as standard treatments; some chemotherapy in clinical trials may not be covered by insurance so it is important to understand all of the details for before agreeing to participate in a clinical trial.
  • You should prepare a list of questions (see text for question details) and take notes and ask for printed information about your cancer and the chemotherapy drugs you may receive; also, it is wise to find out how to contact a physician or nurse in an emergency or after normal office hours.
  • Chemotherapy can be stressful for some patients; the stress can be reduced by joining support groups, talking with others about chemotherapy, exercise and using relaxation techniques.
  • Some common side effects of chemotherapy are fatigue, nausea, vomiting, decreased blood cell count, hair loss, mouth sores, and pain.
  • Some side effects can be reduced by medications, others may resolve during or after the chemotherapy session; everyone is different so it is difficult to predict the side effects and the length of time they will occur - however, if fever and chills occur, the patient should be seen and evaluated by a medical professional quickly.
  • The National Cancer Institute is a good source to answer many questions about chemotherapy.

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