What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs designed to slow or stop the growth of rapidly dividing cancer cells in the body. It may be used:
- As a primary treatment to destroy cancer cells
- Before another treatment to shrink a tumor
- After another treatment to destroy any remaining cancer cells
- To relieve symptoms of advanced cancer
At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), our medical oncologists are experienced in delivering targeted, individualized chemotherapy options while also proactively managing side effects.
Chemotherapy delivery methods
Some chemotherapy delivery methods include:
- Orally (by mouth as a pill or liquid)
- Intravenously (by infusion into a vein)
- Topically (as a cream on the skin)
- Direct placement (via a lumbar puncture or device placed under the scalp)
When chemotherapy drugs travel through the bloodstream to reach cells throughout the body, it is called systemic chemotherapy. When chemotherapy drugs are directed to a specific area of the body, it is called regional chemotherapy.
Experienced care team
For most of our patients, a medical oncologist serves as their primary doctor. Our medical oncologists specialize in diagnosing cancer and delivering chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy and/or hormone therapy. They will work closely with you and the rest of your care team to discuss chemotherapy options based on your individual needs.
Individualized treatment approach
When you arrive at the hospital, your medical oncologist will review your medical history and perform a full diagnostic evaluation, then present you with a treatment plan based on your specific diagnosis.
Chemotherapy is an important part of treatment for many of our patients. Our physicians use leading treatment protocols and practice evidence-based medicine. In some cases, we may use innovative delivery methods to treat certain types of cancer.
We strive to find the right chemotherapy drug, or combination of drugs, for each person. We may use tests, such as tumor molecular profiling, to identify an appropriate drug combination for your disease and help you avoid unnecessary toxicity.
If chemotherapy is part of your treatment plan, your medical oncologist will coordinate your dosage and schedule. You may receive chemotherapy alone, or in combination with other treatment modalities like targeted therapies, surgery and/or radiation therapy.
Throughout your treatment, your medical oncologist will monitor the effectiveness of your chemotherapy regimen and modify your treatment plan accordingly.
Managing chemotherapy side effects
While chemotherapy targets cancer cells, it can also damage healthy cells and cause unpleasant side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, hair loss, fatigue and mouth sores. Your dedicated care team will provide a variety of integrative oncology services to help you prevent or manage side effects throughout your chemotherapy treatment.
Chemotherapy medical animation
Video: Chemotherapy Medical AnimationMedical animation
Chemotherapy for brain cancer
Our medical oncologists treat brain cancer with an aggressive and creative approach, selecting drug combinations and delivery methods based on your individual needs. For patients with high-grade brain cancer, chemotherapy is commonly used. You may receive chemotherapy alone, or in combination with other brain cancer treatments, such as brain cancer surgery and/or radiation therapy.
Systemic chemotherapy for brain cancer
Chemotherapy drugs enter the bloodstream and reach areas throughout the body. A challenge with using chemotherapy for brain cancer is finding drugs that can cross the blood-brain barrier (the natural barrier that protects the brain) to reach tumor cells in the brain.
Chemotherapy drugs may be administered orally in pill form, or injected into the vein. For some types of brain cancer, chemotherapy drugs may be given directly into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), either in the brain or spinal column. To help with this, our doctors can surgically implant a special reservoir under the scalp. The reservoir is attached to a tube that leads into a ventricle of the brain where the CSF circulates.
Local chemotherapy for brain cancer
Our doctors can also deliver chemotherapy directly to the area of the brain tumor at the time of surgical resection. As we remove all or part of the brain tumor, we’ll place dissolvable Gliadel® wafers (containing the chemotherapy drug carmustine, or BCNU) in the space left by the tumor or near parts of the tumor that can’t be removed. The wafers slowly release the chemotherapy over several days.
Since local chemotherapy is administered as close as possible to the brain tumor at the resection area, rather than systemically, this technique increases the drug concentration at the tumor site while reducing the side effects typically associated with systemic chemotherapy.
Addressing side effects of brain cancer chemotherapy
Chemotherapy targets rapidly-dividing cancer cells. Yet, some healthy cells in the body also divide rapidly, like those in the hair follicles, mouth, stomach and bone marrow. When chemotherapy damages these healthy cells, the following side effects may result:
- Hair loss
- Increased risk of infection (from low white blood cell counts)
- Fatigue (from low red blood cell counts)
- Easy bruising and bleeding (from low blood platelet counts)
Before your treatment begins, your care team will meet with you to answer your questions and talk about what you can expect from treatment, including how we’ll help you manage chemotherapy side effects.
Throughout your brain cancer treatment, we’ll use a combination of approaches. For example, your doctor may prescribe certain drugs before and during treatment to combat nausea or prevent infection. We’ll also do routine blood tests to monitor your blood cell counts. Your doctor may also prescribe steroids to help relieve swelling around the brain tumor, improve neurologic functioning and increase appetite.
Additionally, therapies like nutrition therapy, naturopathic medicine, pain management, and oncology rehabilitation, can all help to reduce chemotherapy side effects and keep you strong so you can maintain your quality of life as much as possible during treatment.