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Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment done with medicine. It attacks cells that divide quickly, such as cancer cells. It is used less often than biologic therapy, which is another kind of treatment done with medicine. Chemotherapy may be used in rare cases where biologic therapy has not worked.
Some of the chemotherapy medicines that might be used include:
You may take more than 1 medicine. This is called combination therapy. Which medicines you get and how often you get them depend on many factors. If you have chemotherapy, you may have it along with biologic therapy.
Chemotherapy medicine is most often given through an IV. It may also be taken by mouth as a pill, or as an injection. The treatment may be done as an outpatient visit to a hospital, and you go home the same day. Or it may be at your health care provider’s office, a chemotherapy clinic, or at home. In some cases, you may stay in the hospital during treatment.
If you need to have an IV for each cycle of chemotherapy, it can be helpful to have a vein (venous) access device or an indwelling catheter. A catheter is a thin, flexible tube. The catheter would stay in place between cycles so that you don't have a new IV started each time you get treatment.
One end of the tube is placed into a vein near your heart. The other end is placed just under the skin or comes out through the skin. The chemotherapy can then be connected to it when you have treatment. Your health care team will talk with you about the risks and benefits a venous access device or indwelling catheter.
You get chemotherapy in cycles over a period of time. That means you may take the medicine for a set amount of time and then you have a rest period. Each period of treatment and rest is 1 cycle. You may have several cycles. Having treatment in cycles helps by:
Killing more cancer cells. The medicine can kill more cancer cells over time, because cells aren't all dividing at the same time. Cycles allow the medicine to fight more cells.
Giving your body a rest. Treatment is hard on other cells of the body that divide quickly. This includes cells in the lining of the mouth and stomach. This causes side effects, such as sores and nausea. Between cycles, your body can get a rest from the chemotherapy.
Giving your mind a rest. Having chemotherapy can be stressful. Taking breaks between cycles can let you get an emotional break between treatments.
Side effects are common with chemotherapy, but it's important to know that they can often be prevented or controlled. The side effects from chemotherapy usually go away when the treatment ends. Side effects of chemotherapy depend on the type and amount of medicines you’re taking. They vary from person to person.
Some common temporary side effects from chemotherapy include:
Nausea and vomiting
Constipation or diarrhea
Infections from low white blood cell counts
Easy bruising or bleeding from low blood platelets
Tiredness from low red blood cell counts
Loss of appetite
Skin problems, such as dryness, rash, blistering, or darkening skin
Tingling, numbness, or swelling in hands or feet
Most of side effects will go away or get better between treatments and a few weeks after treatment ends. You may also be able to help control some of these side effects. Tell your health care providers about any side effects you have. They can help you cope with the side effects.
You will have blood tests done regularly while you're getting chemotherapy to make sure you aren't having harmful reactions. Make sure you ask which problems, if any, require calling your health care provider or nurse right away. For instance, chemotherapy can make you more likely to get infections. Your health care provider or nurse may advise you to call them if you have any of these symptoms:
Redness, swelling, and warmth at the site of an injury or IV catheter
New cough or shortness of breath
Burning during urination
It may be helpful to keep a diary of your side effects. Write down physical, thinking, and emotional changes. A written list will make it easier for you to remember your questions when you go to your appointments. It will also make it easier for you to work with your medical team to make a plan to manage your side effects.
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