Understanding Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy, commonly referred to as “chemo,” is the use of drugs to fight disease – commonly cancer.

As a treatment option, chemotherapy is one of the most significant advancements in the history of medicine. For millions of people it has helped treat their cancer effectively so they can return to an enjoyable, full and productive life.

When chemotherapy is made up of more than one drug, it is called combination chemotherapy. Different drugs have different actions, and they can work together to kill more cancer cells and reduce the chance that your cancer may stop responding to a particular chemotherapy drug.

Sometimes chemotherapy is the only treatment you will need. Sometimes, chemotherapy is used in addition to surgery or radiation therapy or with both. Here’s why:

  • Chemotherapy may be used to shrink a tumor before surgery or radiation therapy.
  • It may be used after surgery or radiation therapy to help destroy any remaining cancer cells.
  • It may be used with other treatments if your cancer returns.

Chemo is not without risk though. It works by killing fast-growing cancer cells, but it cannot tell the difference between a fast-growing cancer cell and a fast-growing healthy cell – such as those found in hair follicles, skin, bone marrow and other areas of the body. When this happens, healthy cells may be affected by the chemo, which can lead to side effects.

Administering Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can be given in a variety of ways. The most common method is intravenously through a temporary IV. This means a thin plastic tube called a catheter will be placed in your vein and the chemo will be given through it.

Some patients have long-term IV devices like a port or a PICC. If your doctor thinks one of these devices is best for your cancer care needs, you will receive education about it and given the chance to ask questions before it is placed.

Beyond an IV, chemotherapy can also be delivered in the following ways:

  • Injection: Administered as a shot within a muscle of the arm, hip, thigh or under the skin near a fatty body area such as arm, leg or stomach.
  • Oral: Provided as a pill, capsule or liquid that is then swallowed.
  • Topical: Given as a cream that is then rubbed onto the skin.

Receiving IV chemotherapy should not be painful. If you feel stinging, burning, coolness or numbness in the area of your IV, tell your nurse immediately.

Chemotherapy is administered in cycles, which includes the days you receive your chemo along with rest periods. Rest periods are built into the chemo cycles so that your body can build healthy new cells and regain its strength. A cycle will generally contain more than one day of chemo followed by the rest period. For example, you may receive chemo every seven days for three weeks and then a week off before starting the next cycle. Your doctor will likely prescribe a number of cycles followed by testing to check how well the chemo is working.

Locations Close to Home

Chemotherapy is available through Samaritan Cancer Program in all of our communities.

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