How does chemotherapy work?
Chemotherapy kills rapidly dividing cells in a variety of ways, depending on the chemotherapy drug used. There are many different types of cancers that all grow differently, many chemotherapy drugs have been developed to target these various growth patterns. Each drug has a different way of working, for example, some chemotherapy drugs work by:
- Damaging DNA
- Preventing cells from dividing
- Disrupting cellular metabolism or other critical functions
How is chemotherapy given?
Different ways chemo can be given:
- Intravenously (IV)
- By mouth in the form of a pill
- With a shot (injection)
- By intrathecal and intraventricular injection (meaning into the spinal fluid surrounding the spinal cord or brain).
In some cases, a nurse will administer chemotherapy in an outpatient clinic. In other cases, it may be necessary to go to the hospital for treatment. Some types of chemotherapy can be given at home. Through instruction, you and your family members can learn how to administer chemotherapy in pill form or by injection with small syringes and needles.
Chemotherapy is typically given in cycles. A cycle, which is a treatment followed by a period of rest, can last 1 or more days, but is usually 1, 2, 3, or 4 weeks long. A course of chemotherapy is made up of multiple cycles. Each course is different, but generally consists of four to six cycles.
If your chemotherapy is given through an IV, your doctor may suggest an implanted venous access device (VAD), such as a Hickman® catheter or Port-a-Cath®. VADs are surgically placed in a large vein near the heart and can stay in place for long periods of time, so you will not have to have smaller catheters repeatedly placed in your arm veins.
How often will I receive chemotherapy?
Generally, treatments are given daily, weekly, or monthly. How often you receive chemotherapy depends on the type of cancer and the drug or combination of drugs. Your doctor will help you determine the most effective treatment schedule for you.
What chemotherapy will I receive?
You will receive chemotherapy that is best suited to achieve your goals. When selecting a treatment or treatments, your doctor will consider:
- Your diagnosis
- How far along your cancer is in its development
- The expected behavior of the cancer
- Where the cancer originated
- Your age
- Other medical problems you may have
- Any potential side effects from the treatment
- How is my chemotherapy scheduled?
What are the side effects of chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy works by destroying cancer cells; unfortunately, it cannot tell the difference between a cancer cell and a healthy cell. The delivery of cancer therapy often affects the body’s normal tissues or organs that are not affected by cancer. Side effects, or complications of treatment, are the undesired consequence of affecting normal cells.
Because the expected outcome of therapy is based on delivering treatment at the prescribed dose and schedule, a change from the treatment plan may reduce your chance of achieving an optimal outcome. This is extremely important to understand. In other words, side effects not only cause discomfort and unpleasantness, but may also compromise your chance of cure by preventing the delivery of therapy at its optimal dose and time.
The most common side effects of chemotherapy are:
Connect to Manager Side Effect word documents
Why am I so tired?
Many people who receive chemotherapy experience fatigue. Fatigue has many causes, but frequently occurs because of anemia caused by the chemotherapy. Your daily activities should be planned according to how you feel, and you should take rest periods throughout the day as often as you feel necessary. Anemia can be effectively treated. To learn more, go to Fatigue.
Be sure to report any of the following:
- Fever (greater than 100.5º F), congestion, or a cold
- A rash, blister, easily bruised skin, signs of bleeding, an infected cut, or itching or burning in the genital area
- Weakness, fatigue, or shortness of breath
- Why is my complete blood count (CBC) tested after treatment?
Chemotherapy destroys cells that are rapidly dividing, a characteristic of cancer cells. However, red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets also divide rapidly and are frequently damaged by chemotherapy. Your red blood cell count, white blood cell count, and platelet count may go down. Your doctor monitors these counts to determine the toxicity of treatment and to predict your risk of complications, as well as to plan future therapy. For more information, see Understanding and Monitoring Your Blood Counts.