Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center - Health Library

Chemotherapy

Definition

Chemotherapy is medicine(s) used to kill cancer cells. It is toxic to fast-growing cancer cells. However, it can also affect fast-growing health cells, like blood cells.

Reasons for Procedure  ^

It may be the main treatment or part of an overall plan. It can be used to:

  • Cure certain cancers
  • Lower the chance of cancer coming back after it has been removed through surgery
  • Stop the growth of cancers that can not be removed
  • Reduce the size of tumors before surgery
  • Attack cancer that has spread to other parts of the body
  • Shrink tumors that are causing problems

Side Effects  ^

The medicine attacks fast-growing cells. It can also hurt healthy cells. This can cause side effects. Side effects vary. It depends on the type of medicine and which healthy cells are affected.

Damage to healthy cells that line the mouth, stomach, and intestines can cause:

Healthy blood cells can be damaged. Damage to blood cells can lead to:

  • Anemia—low red blood cell count
  • Weakened immune system with a higher risk of infections
  • Tiredness
  • Easy bruising and bleeding

Damage to healthy cells at the root of hairs can cause hair loss.

Other areas may be harmed:

  • Nerves—damage or irritation may cause numbness and tingling in the hands and feet called peripheral neuropathy
  • Kidney—medicines can pass into urine and damage kidneys
  • Heart—certain medicines can harm the heart muscle
  • Reproductive organ—some chemotherapy medicines may cause:

The medical team will choose a plan that works best and has the fewest problems. Other methods may also help manage problems.

What to Expect  ^

Prior to Procedure

You may need medicine before treatment:

  • Steroids—to reduce inflammation
  • Allergy medicines, such as an antihistamine
  • Antiemetics to control nausea
  • Sedatives
  • Antibiotics—to lower the risk of infections

Description of the Procedure

The medical team will talk to you about the best way to give you the medicines. They may be given by:

  • IV—needle is placed in a vein in the arm and medicine is slowly passed into the blood
  • Mouth—pills or liquids
  • Injection which may be:
    • Passed into a muscle
    • Placed under the skin into fatty tissue
    • Intrathecal—injected into tissue that covers the spine and brain
    • Intra-arterial—injected into an artery that leads to the cancer
    • Intraperitoneal—injected into the area over the abdomen
  • Topical—placed on the skin

Chemotherapy Delivery Through the Cardiovascular System
Chemotherapy

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

How Long Will It Take?

The time it will take depends on the type of treatment, the number of medicines, and the amount needed.

Will It Hurt?

Giving you the medicine will usually not cause pain. Side effects may start in the hours and days after.

Average Hospital Stay

Most often, you can leave after the medicine is given to you. You may need to stay in a hospital for some treatments. This may be about 2-3 days.

You may need to stay in the hospital if there are problems, such as vomiting.

Post-procedure Care

At the Hospital

After you are given medicine, you may get:

  • Injections of an immune-system or blood cell boosting medicine
  • Other drugs, such as steroids, allergy medicines, sedatives, and antibiotics

At Home

The time it takes you to feel better will depend on the treatment you had and how your body responds. Some people will need more rest than others. You may be able to do regular activities or they may be very impacted.

Follow-up tests will show how the treatment is working. It can also help to find any complications. The tests will help guide future treatments.

Call Your Doctor  ^

Talk to your doctor if you are having problems such as:

  • Signs of infection, such as fever and chills
  • Sores in your mouth, throat, or lips
  • White patches in your mouth
  • Problems swallowing
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Vomiting that stops you from holding down fluids
  • Blood in your vomit
  • Easy bruising
  • Nosebleeds, bleeding gums, new vaginal bleeding
  • Blood in your urine or stool
  • Burning or frequency of urination
  • Chest pain
  • Weakness
  • Problems breathing
  • Cough
  • Calf pain, swelling, or redness in the legs or feet
  • Abnormal vaginal leaking, itching, or odor
  • New pain or pain that you can't control with the medicines you were given
  • Numbness, tingling, or pain in your limbs
  • Joint pain, stiffness, rash, or other new problems
  • Redness, swelling, pain, bleeding, or a pimple at the site of your IV
  • Headache, stiff neck
  • Problems hearing or seeing
  • Ringing in your ears
  • Exposure to someone with an illness that can spread, such as chickenpox
  • Weight gain or loss of 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) or more

If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.

RESOURCES:

American Cancer Society
https://www.cancer.org

National Cancer Institute
https://www.cancer.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

BC Cancer Agency
http://www.bccancer.bc.ca

Canadian Cancer Society
http://www.cancer.ca

REFERENCES:

Chemotherapy. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/chemotherapy.html. Accessed October 9, 2017.

Chemotherapy and you: Support for people with cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/chemo-and-you. Updated June 2011. Accessed October 9, 2017.

Last reviewed June 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP  Last Updated: 5/15/2018