Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses powerful chemicals to kill fast-growing cells in your body.
Chemotherapy is most often used to treat cancer, since cancer cells grow and multiply much more quickly than most cells in the body.
Many different chemotherapy drugs are available. Chemotherapy drugs can be used alone or in combination to treat a wide variety of cancers.
Though chemotherapy is an effective way to treat many types of cancer, chemotherapy treatment also carries a risk of side effects. Some chemotherapy side effects are mild and treatable, while others can cause serious complications.
Chemotherapy is used to kill cancer cells in people with cancer.
There are a variety of settings in which chemotherapy may be used in people with cancer:
Some chemotherapy drugs have proved useful in treating other conditions, such as:
Side effects of chemotherapy drugs can be significant. Each drug has different side effects, and not every drug causes every side effect. Ask your doctor about the side effects of the particular drugs you'll receive.
Common side effects of chemotherapy drugs include:
Many of these side effects can be prevented or treated. Most side effects subside after treatment ends.
Chemotherapy drugs can also cause side effects that don't become evident until months or years after treatment. Late side effects vary depending on the chemotherapy drug but can include:
Ask your doctor if you have a risk of any late side effects. Ask what signs and symptoms you should be aware of that may signal a problem.
How you prepare for chemotherapy depends on which drugs you'll receive and how they'll be administered. Your doctor will give you specific instructions to prepare for your chemotherapy treatments. You may need to:
Make arrangements for help at home and at work. Most chemotherapy treatments are given in an outpatient clinic, which means most people are able to continue working and doing their usual activities during chemotherapy. Your doctor can tell you in general how much the chemotherapy will affect your usual activities, but it's difficult to predict exactly how you'll feel.
Ask your doctor if you'll need time off work or help around your home after treatment. Ask your doctor for the details of your chemotherapy treatments so that you can make arrangements for work, children, pets or other commitments.
Prepare for your first treatment. Ask your doctor or chemotherapy nurses how to prepare for chemotherapy. It may be helpful to arrive for your first chemotherapy treatment well rested. You might wish to eat a light meal beforehand in case your chemotherapy medications cause nausea.
Have a friend or family member drive you to your first treatment. Most people can drive themselves to and from chemotherapy sessions. But the first time you may find that the medications make you sleepy or cause other side effects that make driving difficult.
Your doctor chooses which chemotherapy drugs you'll receive based on several factors, including:
Discuss your treatment options with your doctor. Together you can decide what's right for you.
Chemotherapy drugs can be given in different ways, including:
Your doctor determines how often you'll receive chemotherapy treatments based on what drugs you'll receive, the characteristics of your cancer and how well your body recovers after each treatment. Chemotherapy treatment schedules vary. Chemotherapy treatment can be continuous, or it may alternate between periods of treatment and periods of rest to let you recover.
Where you'll receive your chemotherapy treatments depends on your situation. Chemotherapy treatments can be given:
You'll meet with your cancer doctor (oncologist) regularly during chemotherapy treatment. Your oncologist will ask about any side effects you're experiencing, since many can be controlled.
Depending on your situation, you may also undergo scans and other tests to monitor your cancer during chemotherapy treatment. These tests can give your doctor an idea of how your cancer is responding to treatment, and your treatment may be adjusted accordingly.