What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs to treat cancerous cells. Chemotherapy has been used for many years and is one of the most common treatments for cancer. In most cases, chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cell's ability to grow or reproduce. Different groups of drugs work in different ways to fight cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used alone for some types of cancer or in combination with other treatments such as radiation or surgery. Often, a combination of chemotherapy drugs is used to fight a specific cancer. Certain chemotherapy drugs may be given in a specific order depending on the type of cancer it is being used to treat.
While chemotherapy can be quite effective in treating certain cancers, chemotherapy drugs reach all parts of the body, not just the cancer cells. Because of this, there can be many side effects during treatment. Being able to anticipate these side effects can help you and your caregivers prepare and, in some cases, prevent these symptoms from occurring.
How is chemotherapy administered?
Chemotherapy can be given:
As a pill to swallow
As an injection (shot) into the muscle or fat tissue
Intravenously (directly to the bloodstream; also called IV)
Topically (applied to the skin)
Directly into a body cavity
To reduce the damage to healthy cells and to give them a chance to recover, chemotherapy is usually given in cycles. Chemotherapy may be given daily, weekly, every few weeks, or monthly, depending on your situation.
Chemotherapy is usually given in an outpatient setting, such as a hospital, clinic, or doctor's office. Patients receiving chemotherapy will be watched for reactions during treatments. Since each chemotherapy treatment session may last for a while, patients are encouraged to take along something that is comforting, such as music to listen to. It is also recommended to bring something to help pass the time, such as a deck of cards or a book.
What are some of the chemotherapy drugs and their potential side effects?
There are a number of chemotherapy drugs that are commonly used. The following table gives examples of a few of the more commonly used chemotherapy drugs and their various names. It lists some of the cancer types but not necessarily all of the cancers for which they are used, and describes more common side effects. Side effects may occur just after treatment (days or weeks) or they may occur later (months or even years) after the chemotherapy has been given. The side effects listed below do not comprise an all-inclusive list. Other side effects are possible.
As each person's individual medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his or her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild, or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team possible side effects of treatment before treatment begins. Ask for written information on each drug that you're getting so you know what to watch for and what to report to your doctor.
Possible side effects
(Not all side effects are listed. Some of those listed may be short-term side effects; others are long-term side effects.)
Doxorubicin (Adriamycin, Rubex):
Etoposide (VePesid, VP-16):
Methotrexate (Folex, Mexate, MTX):
Vinblastine (Velban, Velbe, Velsar):
Vincristine (Oncovin, Vincasar PFS, Vincrex, vincristine sulfate, VCR):