Understanding Different Treatment Types: What is Chemotherapy?

If you have just been diagnosed with cancer, you may have heard the word “chemotherapy” during your visit. Chemotherapy refers to a group of drugs made of powerful chemicals that kill fast growing cells inside the body. This type of treatment does not “target” or only kill cancer cells. It can affect all fast-growing cells in the body which includes hair and skin cells and normal blood cells. Chemotherapy can be used on its own or in combination with other treatment types. 

What exactly is chemotherapy? 

Chemotherapy is a type of medication used to help destroy cancer cells by stopping/slowing the rate at which they grow. Because cancer cells grow and divide at different rates, chemotherapy drugs are given on a specific schedule to disrupt this process. Chemotherapy is often referred to as a “systemic” treatment. This means it can travel all over the body and kill cancer cells that may have spread to other organs. 

Chemotherapy can be given in many different forms. These include: 

  • Pill form 

  • Injection (shot) 

  • Infusion 

  • Through a tube into the abdomen 

  • A disc implanted near the tumor (usually brain) that dissolves 

  • Topical cream 

Your oncologist will decide how your chemotherapy is given based on your type of cancer and chemotherapy drug that you need. 

How is chemotherapy used?

Chemotherapy can be used for many different reasons. It can be given to help cure your cancer. It can also be given as a treatment to manage cancer symptoms and prevent further spread or growth. In combination treatment therapies, chemotherapy can be given to shrink a tumor before surgery and/or radiation therapy. Chemotherapy can also be given after radiation or surgery to make sure all cancer cells have been killed.  

Questions to ask your oncologist 

  • What chemotherapy drugs will I be receiving? 

  • What are the most common side effects? 

  • When should I expect to see these side effects?  

  • Are there any days that I will feel worse than others? 

  • When should I call your office with concerns? 

  • How often is my treatment given? 

  • Are there any special precautions to take while on my chemotherapy regimen?