Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill bacteria, viruses, fungi, and cancer cells. Most commonly, the term is used to refer to cancer-killing drugs. Chemotherapy drugs can be given by mouth or injection. Because the medicines travel through the bloodstream to the entire body, chemotherapy is considered a body-wide (or systemic) treatment.
Chemotherapy may be used to:
Depending on the type of cancer and where it is found, chemotherapy may be given in a number of different ways, including:
Different chemotherapy drugs may be given at the same time or after each other. Patients may receive radiation therapy before, after, or while they are getting chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is most often given in cycles. These cycles may last one day, several days, or a week or more. There will usually be a rest period when no chemotherapy is given between each cycle. A rest period may last for days, weeks, or months.
Chemotherapy medicines work best on cells that divide often to make new cells. This is typical of most cancer cells. However, some normal cells - including those found in the blood, hair, and the lining of the gastrointestinal tract - also divide very quickly. Chemotherapy can also damage or kill these healthy cells.
When this damage occurs, there can be side effects. Some people who receive chemotherapy:
Side effects of chemotherapy depend on many things, including the type of cancer and which drugs are being used. Each patient reacts differently to these drugs. Some newer chemotherapy drugs that better target cancer cells may cause fewer side effects. Your doctor and nurse will explain what you can do at home to prevent or treat side effects, such as:
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