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Chemotherapy (“chemo”) is a treatment for cancer. Chemo can be a single medication. Or, it can be a combination of medications. When used alone or along with surgery or radiation therapy, it can often shrink a tumor or prevent its spread.
Chemo kills cells that grow quickly. This is why it kills cancer cells. But it also affects healthy cells that grow fast. This includes cells in the mouth and stomach lining, bone marrow, skin, and hair. This is why side effects, such as hair loss, nausea, and low blood cell counts, occur. As a rule, chemo is given in cycles of treatment. There is often a time of no treatment between cycles. This lets normal cells recover before the next cycle begins.
Chemo can kill cancer cells. As a result, it may do the following:
Shrink cancer before surgery
Rid the body of cancer cells that remain after surgery
Reduce symptoms (such as pain)
Control cancer for a period of time
Cause remission (no evidence of the disease on medical testing)
Cure cancer (no evidence of the disease years after treatment)
When healthy cells are damaged, side effects may develop including:
Nausea and vomiting
Anemia (low red blood cell count)
Mouth and throat sores
Skin changes (dry skin, itching, acne)
Lack of interest in sex
Trouble remembering and concentrating
Stress and depression
There are some long-term risks with chemo. But the benefits usually outweigh the risks. Risks depend on the type of chemo used. Some possible long-term risks include:
Damage to certain organs, such as the heart, kidneys, liver, or lungs
Lasting nerve damage
Another cancer forming at a later time
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