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What is Chemotherapy?

Medically reviewed by Maurie Markman, MD

A Patient's Guide to Chemotherapy

Whether you or a loved one has questions about chemotherapy, this comprehensive overview is here to help you navigate through risk factors, ways to combat side effects, and follow-up care.

Chemotherapy is one of the most common treatment options for many cancers. These anti-cancer drugs work by targeting rapidly growing cancer cells either throughout the body or in a specific area of the body.

When chemotherapy drugs travel through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells, it's known as systemic chemotherapy. When the drugs are directed to a specific area of the body, it's called regional chemotherapy.

    Chemotherapy may be used:
  • As a primary treatment to destroy cancer cells
  • Before another treatment to shrink a tumor
  • After another treatment to destroy remaining cancer cells
  • To relieve symptoms of advanced cancer
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How are chemotherapy drugs given?

How and where chemotherapy drugs may be given depends on a variety of clinical factors and personal preferences. You may receive your chemotherapy at home, in a clinic or outpatient care center, at a hospital or doctor's office.

  • Infusion
  • Orally
  • Injection
  • Topical
  • Intrathecal
  • Intraperitoneal
    Chemotherapy drugs may be administered:
  • Orally: In pill or liquid form are taken by mouth
  • Infusion: Delivered directly into a vein through an intravenous drip. This process may take several hours.
  • Injection: Delivered through a needle injected into a vein, muscle or under the skin
  • Topically: In cream form and are spread on the skin
  • Intrathecal: Delivered directly into the central nervous system
  • Intraperitoneal: Given directly into the abdominal cavity

Treatment doesn't stop with chemotherapy

Led by an empowering team of clinicians, integrative care combines conventional treatments with supportive therapies (including behavioral health, spiritual support and nutritional guidance). Quality of life, strength, and stamina matter -- especially when it comes to creating a chemotherapy treatment plan.

Learn more about integrative care >

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Common side effects of chemo

Because chemotherapy drugs kill rapidly growing cancer cells, they also can harm healthy cells. This can cause several different side effects. The severity of these side effects depends on your health, age and the type of chemotherapy drugs.

You may experience numerous side effects, just a few, or none at all. Your reaction may be different from someone else's, even when taking the same chemotherapy regimen.

side effects
    Chemotherapy side effects may include:
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Anemia (low red blood cell counts)
  • Infection
  • Easy bruising and bleeding
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Appetite changes and weight changes
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Mouth, tongue and throat problems such as sores and pain with swallowing
  • Peripheral neuropathy or other nerve problems, such as numbness, tingling and pain
  • Skin and nail changes such as dry skin and color change
  • Urine and bladder changes and kidney problems
  • Fertility problems and changes in libido and sexual function
Learn more about how to manage side effects >

Proper nutrition can help with chemo side effects.

A guided nutrition plan by a registered dietitian may help you prevent or manage related side effects, and support your overall well-being.

Call (844) 469-4584

Learn more >
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6 hacks that helped me with chemo side effects

by Mags Bujalski

Mags Bujalski was diagnosed with blood cancer and was treated with a chemotherapy regimen over XX months. Now she's sharing some tips she used to help manage side effects through treatment

1Detox your body

    I drink a detox smoothie every day for the first week after each chemo. My recipe:

  • ½ of an apple
  • 3 celery stalks
  • juice from half a lemon
  • 1 teaspoon of turmeric
  • a little water

Empty your bladder every 2 hours. I set alarms for every 2 hours for the first 3-4 days after chemo treatment.

I detox my skin with a mask of Bentonite clay and apple cider vinegar. I put the mask on my face and arm pits

2Stay ahead of nausea

I use ginger everything to help with nausea. I take 1 or 2 ginger pills or drink ginger tea to help settle my stomach.

Identify nausea triggers: for me it was smells, especially foods with a strong sent. Throughout treatment, I stayed away from foods with strong scents and ate odorless foods (bread, crackers, rice).

Eat smaller snacks more frequently: I would eat a little bit every 1-2 hours instead of big meals.

3Be ready for headaches with natural remedies

I used ice packs wrapped in a towel and cold compress mask I found at a dollar store around my head and eyes.

Peppermint essential oil: I would use a diffuser and rub a little on my head and under my nose.

Epsom salt foot soaks: they're therapeutic and the magnesium from the salt gets into your skin and can help with headache prevention.

4Hydrate! Hydrate! Hydrate!

Water often tasted sweet to me after treatment so I would add a little lemon juice or just drink things that are supposed to be sweet like juices or vitamin water.

5Prevent mouth sores

I would suck on ice chips 30 minutes before and during treatment to help avoid them.

6Get plenty of fresh air

I loved to have the windows open and go for walks when I was feeling up to it.

Questions to ask your care team

Before you decide that chemotherapy is the right treatment for you, it's important to be informed and learn as much as you can about the risks and benefits and what to expect. Do not hesitate to ask your cancer care team any questions you may have to help you prepare.

The American Cancer Society offers a helpful and comprehensive list of questions you may ask your doctor or nurse before starting chemotherapy treatment. Some of the ones from their list include the below:

  • Which chemotherapy drugs will I be given, and how will they be given to me?
  • How often will I need to get chemotherapy?
  • How long will my treatments last?
  • Will I also need surgery, radiation or both? If so, when and why? What results can I expect?
  • What can I do to get ready for treatment and decrease the chance of side effects?
  • Can I take my other medicines, vitamins and/or supplements while getting chemo?
  • What will we do if this chemo doesn't work?

Your chemotherapy prep checklist

Planning ahead for chemotherapy treatments can help make you more comfortable, keep track of important information, and limit the number of things you'll have to do after treatment.

  • Connect with your cancer care team on questions about treatment and what to expect. Before you start chemotherapy treatment, you will be asked to sign a consent form. Prior to signing it's important that you fully understand details of your treatment such as types of drugs you'll be given, side effects, and other options you might have.
  • Schedule an appointment with your dentist. Seeing the dentist a month before your treatment begins can help improve your oral health and help prevent serious mouth problems from side effects.
  • Create a care kit for side effects. Part of planning for chemotherapy treatments should include preparing for potential side effects afterward. Call your pharmacist to have your medication prescriptions filled ahead of time and consider stocking your home with natural remedies to soothe side effects.
  • Ask a loved one to escort you to and from your appointment. While you'll need someone to drive you, it's also helpful to have a loved one with you to take notes and help with medication instructions and other to-dos after treatment. If you are going by yourself, recording notes on your phone can be helpful to review later.

What to expect during treatment

During treatment with chemotherapy, you will visit your doctor often to determine how the treatment is going, how it's affecting you and how well it's doing its job and destroying cancer. During your visits, you may need to have several tests and exams, such as blood tests or MRI scans, to see how well your treatment is working.

Your doctor is the best resource to ask about the results of chemotherapy. He or she will keep you updated on your treatment's progress.

While you should pay close attention to your side effects and share them with your doctor, you should not assume that their severity is associated with the treatment's success. In fact, side effects are not at all related to how well the chemotherapy is working.

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Available 24/7

Looking for cancer care?

Our caring, experienced nurses at CTCA are here to listen to your situation and help understand your options.

Patient Empowered Care ®

TOP CTCA CANCER EXPERTS

doctor

Asha Karippot, MD

Medical Oncologist and Hematologist
stars rating
doctor

Bamidele A. Adesunloye, MD, MS, FACP

Medical Oncologist
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doctor

Bruce Gershenhorn, DO

Medical Oncologist
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