Chemotherapy is medicine used to destroy cancer cells. It is toxic to fast-growing cancer cells. It can also affect fast-growing healthy cells, like blood cells, lining in stomach, and hair.
Reasons for Procedure
Chemotherapy is used as a part of cancer treatment. The role it will play will be based on the type of cancer and how advanced it is. Chemotherapy may:
- Cure cancer—Cancer cells are destroyed to the point that cancer can no longer be found in the body. The cancer cells will not grow back.
- Control cancer—Chemotherapy may keep cancer from spreading or slows its growth. It may also destroy cancer cells that have spread to other parts of your body.
- Ease cancer symptoms—It may be given to shrink tumors that are causing pain or pressure.
The medicine attacks fast-growing cells. It can also hurt healthy cells and lead to side effects. Side effects vary. The type of medicine and type of healthy cells affected will determine what symptoms you have.
Damage to healthy cells that line the mouth, stomach, and intestines can cause:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Loss of hunger
- Mouth sores
Damage to blood cells can lead to:
- Anemia—low red blood cell count
- Weakened immune system with a higher risk of infections
- Easy bruising and bleeding
Hair loss may be caused by damage to cells at the root of hairs.
Other areas that 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:
- Menstrual cycle problems
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
Medicine may be given before treatment such as:
- Steroids—to reduce inflammation
- Allergy medicines, such as an antihistamine
- Antiemetics to control nausea
- Antibiotics—to lower the risk of infections
Description of the Procedure
Medicine 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
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How Long Will It Take?
Treatment time will vary. The type of treatment, number of medicines, and the amount needed will all play a role.
Will It Hurt?
Medicine will rarely cause pain as it is delivered. Side effects may start hours or days after.
Average Hospital Stay
You can often leave after the medicine is given to you. You may need to stay in a hospital for some treatments. This may be about 2 to 3 days.
You may need to stay in the hospital if there are problems, such as vomiting.
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
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
- Problems breathing
- 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.
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
BC Cancer Agency
Canadian Cancer Society
Chemotherapy. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/chemotherapy.html. Accessed January 1, 2021.
Chemotherapy and you: Support for people with cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/chemo-and-you. Accessed January 1, 2021.
Last reviewed January 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Nicole Meregian, PA Last Updated: 1/16/2021