9 Things to Know About Chemotherapy

  • chemotherapy syringe and vial
    A Potent Weapon to Fight Cancer
    Chemotherapy—or chemo—is using medicines to treat disease. Most commonly, it means using potent drugs to fight cancer. Chemotherapy can be a systemic cancer treatment, meaning it goes throughout your whole body to destroy cancer cells wherever it finds them. Chemotherapy can sometimes be a local cancer treatment for just a specific area.

  • immunotherapy-on-cancer-cell
    1. Chemotherapy Stops the Rapid Growth of Cancer Cells
    Chemotherapy interferes with a cell’s ability to grow and divide. Cancer cells are growing and dividing out of control. Chemotherapy is effective at stopping this rapid growth. However, chemotherapy isn’t specific. This means that it can affect normal cells too. Normal cells that tend to grow and turn over quickly include cells of the hair follicles and linings of the mouth, nose, and digestive tract. This accounts for many side effects of chemotherapy.

  • Female cancer patient with doctor in doctor's office
    2. The Goal of Chemotherapy Depends on the Stage of Cancer
    The goal of chemotherapy varies depending on the type of cancer and its stage. Chemotherapy may cure some cancers, especially in early stages. Cure means that your doctor can’t detect any cancer cells or their markers. Chemotherapy can also help control cancers that have spread by killing cancer cells throughout the body. Finally, chemotherapy can help ease the symptoms of terminal cancers.

  • Radiation treatment
    3. Chemotherapy Is Often Used in Combination With Other Treatments
    Sometimes, doctors use chemotherapy alone to treat a cancer. More often, chemotherapy is part of a combination treatment plan. Doctors use chemotherapy before surgery or radiation to shrink a tumor and make it more manageable. This is neoadjuvant chemotherapy. Doctors can also use chemotherapy after surgery or radiation to kill any remaining cancer cells. This is adjuvant chemotherapy.

  • Breast cancer chemotherapy
    4. Chemotherapy Can Be Given as an Injection, Pill or Liquid
    Depending on the cancer, chemotherapy can be either systemic (throughout the body) or local. Doctors put local chemotherapy directly into the area with cancer. This includes injecting it into the spine, bladder or belly, or applying it on the skin. Systemic chemotherapy through an IV (intravenous) line is the more common method. Doctors also give systemic chemotherapy by a shot or in a pill or liquid form.

  • woman with stomach cramps
    5. Common Side Effects Include Fatigue, Nausea and Vomiting
    People react to chemotherapy differently. It depends on the type and stage of cancer, your general health before starting chemotherapy, and the specific drug and dose. The most common side effects are fatigue, nausea and vomiting. Ask your doctor how to prevent and deal with side effects. Prepare for treatments by arranging a ride, planning for a few days of rest, and arranging child care if necessary.

  • woman under stress
    6. Chemotherapy May Affect Your Ability to Work
    Many people are able to continue their normal routines during chemotherapy. But the side effects may make some days more difficult than others. Fortunately, some state and federal laws require employers to make adjustments in work schedules to accommodate cancer treatment. A social worker can provide guidance on your rights in this regard. You can also learn more by contacting the American Cancer Society.

  • Medicine Pill Box Daily Planner
    7. Chemotherapy May Interact With Your Other Medications
    As with any drug treatment, interactions with other medications are possible. It depends on the specific chemotherapy drug and the medicines you take regularly. It’s a good idea to make a list of all your medicines. This includes prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, supplements, and herbal products. Keep the list up-to-date and talk to your doctor and pharmacist about it on a regular basis. Ask about drug interactions with your chemotherapy regimen.

  • Senior yoga
    8. Keep Healthy Habits to Feel Your Best
    Strategies for feeling good and staying health vary for each person. Talk with your doctor about the right approach for you. Some people feel better getting light exercise, such as walking or yoga. But balance exercise with plenty of rest. Pay attention to nutrition and make a meal schedule for the day. Some people benefit from many smaller meals throughout the day. Drink plenty of fluids and pay extra attention to hand washing and hygiene because chemotherapy can make you more prone to infection.

  • Cancer patient
    9. Be Proactive
    Chemotherapy regimens can vary widely. There are numerous chemotherapy drugs and countless combinations. And people’s responses to chemotherapy can vary widely too. It’s vital to understand the goals of your chemotherapy, how and when you’ll take it, and how it might affect you. Be proactive with your doctor. Find out how you might expect to feel and what you can do to keep yourself feeling good.

9 Things to Know About Chemotherapy

About The Author

Sarah Lewis is a pharmacist and a medical writer with over 25 years of experience in various areas of pharmacy practice. Sarah holds a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy degree from West Virginia University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. She completed Pharmacy Practice Residency training at the University of Pittsburgh/VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. 
  1. Chemotherapy and You. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/chemotherapy-and-you.pdf
  2. Questions about Chemotherapy. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/chemotherapy/whatitishowithe...
  3. Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003025-pdf.pdf
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 8
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.