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What is chemotherapy?

Patient reading magazine, undergoing medical treatment in outpatient clinic

Chemotherapy is a type of treatment for cancer that uses medications. Cancer is an abnormal growth of cells. Normally, old or damaged cells in the body will stop dividing and die. Healthy young cells replace these cells. Cancer occurs when old or damaged cells divide and multiply uncontrollably. Cancer cells rapidly reproduce even when your body signals them to stop.

Chemotherapy works by slowing or stopping these rapidly growing cells. The goal of chemotherapy can be to cure cancer, control cancer, or relieve the symptoms of cancer.

Chemotherapy, sometimes called chemo, is only one method to treat cancer. You may have other treatment options. Consider getting a second opinion about all of your treatment choices before having chemotherapy.

Types of chemotherapy

The types of chemotherapy include:

  • Regional chemotherapy affects a specific area of your body instead of your whole body. Regional chemotherapy targets a tumor or tumors contained in one area. It can also help decrease side effects of a large tumor, such as a tumor that presses on another body part causing pain.

  • Systemic chemotherapy affects your entire body or system. It targets cancer cells that may have spread throughout different areas of your body.

Other procedures that may be performed

Doctors sometimes prescribe chemotherapy by itself to treat certain cancers. Your doctor may also prescribe one or more other treatments including:

  • Biological therapy (immunotherapy) boosts or stimulates your body’s immune system to help fight cancer.

  • Hormonal therapy blocks the effects of hormones that stimulate growth of certain cancers. In doing this, hormonal therapy deprives cancer cells of what they need to grow. Examples of cancers treated by hormonal therapy include certain breast cancers and prostate cancers.

  • Laser therapy removes tumors and treats cancer symptoms with a laser.

  • Photodynamic therapy combines special drugs with specific wavelengths of light. The drug, called a photosensitizer, is injected into your tumor and exposed to the light. The light produces a reaction that kills cancer cells when it hits the drug.

  • Radiation therapy uses x-ray beams or other forms of radiation to kill cancer cells. It targets tumors and localized cancer cells. Newer technologies allow doctors to precisely target tumors and minimize damage to nearby healthy cells.

  • Surgery removes cancerous tumors and precancerous tissues.

Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Sep 9, 2016

© 2016 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

View Sources

Medical References

  1. Breast Cancer. BetterMedicine.
  2. Getting a Chemotherapy Infusion Step by Step.
  3. Different types of chemotherapy drugs. American Cancer Society.
  4. How Is Chemotherapy Given?
  5. How is Chemo therapy Given? The Scott Hamilton CARES Initiative.
  6. Questions About Chemotherapy. American Cancer Society.
  7. Questions and Answers About Chemotherapy. National Cancer Institute.
  8. Side Effects and Ways to Manage Them. National Cancer Institute.
  9. When and How Is Chemotherapy Given? University of Iowa Hospitals & clinics.

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