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Chemotherapy refers to the use of medicines to treat cancer. It has been used for many years and is one of the most common treatments for cancer. In most cases, chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cell's ability to grow and reproduce. Different groups of medicines work in different ways to fight cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used alone for some types of cancer or in combination with other treatments such as radiation or surgery. Often, a combination of chemotherapy medicines is used to fight a specific cancer. Certain chemotherapy medicines may be given in a specific order depending on the type of cancer they are being used to treat.
While chemotherapy can be quite effective in treating certain cancers, chemotherapy medicines reach all parts of the body, not just the cancer cells. Because of this, there can be many side effects during treatment. Being able to anticipate these side effects can help you and your caregivers prepare for and manage them.
Chemotherapy can be given:
As a pill to swallow
As an injection (shot) into the muscle or fat tissue
Intravenously (directly to the bloodstream; also called IV)
Topically (applied to the skin)
Directly into a body cavity
To reduce the damage to healthy cells and to give them a chance to recover, chemotherapy is usually given in cycles. Chemotherapy may be given daily, weekly, every few weeks, or monthly, depending on your situation.
Chemotherapy is usually given in an outpatient setting. This includes a hospital, clinic, or healthcare provider's office. Patients receiving chemotherapy will be watched for reactions during treatments. Since each chemotherapy treatment session may last for a while, patients are encouraged to take along something that is comforting, such as music to listen to. It is also recommended to bring something to help pass the time, such as a deck of cards or a book. Since it is hard to predict how a patient will feel after chemotherapy, it is important to have someone drive the person to and from the appointment.
There are a number of chemotherapy medicines that are commonly used. The following table gives examples of a few of the more commonly used chemotherapy medicines and their various names. It lists some of the cancer types but not necessarily all of the cancers for which they are used. It also describes common side effects. Side effects may happen just after treatment (days or weeks), or they may happen later (months or even years) after the chemotherapy has been given. The side effects listed below do not make up an all-inclusive list. Other side effects are possible.
As each person's individual medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his or her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild, or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team possible side effects of treatment before treatment begins. Ask for written information on each medicine that you're getting so you know what to watch for and what to report to your healthcare provider.
Possible side effects
(Not all side effects are listed. Some of those listed may be short-term side effects. Others are long-term side effects.)
Usually given intravenously (IV)
Used mainly for cancers of the ovary and lung
Allergic reactions, including feeling lightheaded or dizzy, fever, chills, hives, itching, headache, coughing, shortness of breath, or swelling of the face, tongue, or throat (uncommon)
Decrease in blood cell counts
Hair loss (reversible)
Numbness and tingling in the hands or feet
Nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea (usually a short-term side effect happening the first 24 to 72 hours following treatment)
Used mainly for cancers of the bladder, ovary, lung, and testicles
Allergic reaction, including a rash and/or labored breathing (rare)
Nausea and vomiting (usually a short-term side effect happening the first 24 to 72 hours following treatment)
Ringing in ears and hearing loss
Fluctuations in blood electrolytes
Can be given intravenously (IV) or orally (as a pill)
Used mainly for lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, breast cancer, and ovarian carcinoma
Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
Bladder irritation that can lead to blood in the urine (hemorrhagic cystitis)
Lung, kidney, or heart damage (with high doses)
Given intravenously (IV)
Used mainly for breast, lung, stomach, head and neck, and prostate cancers
Nausea, vomiting, and weakness
Numbness and tingling in hands and feet
Nail changes (brittle nails, separation of the fingernail from the nail bed)
Used mainly for breast, endometrium, lung, and ovarian cancers, lymphoma, leukemia, and multiple myeloma
Mouth ulcers and loss of appetite
Nails and skin creases in hands may darken
Nausea and vomiting
Can be given intravenously (IV) or orally (as a capsule)
Used mainly for cancers of the lung and testicles
Allergic reaction (rare)
Given intravenously (IV) or as a cream to treat skin cancers
Used mainly for cancers of the colon, rectum, and head and neck
Photosensitivity (skin gets burned easily)
Dry skin, darkening of skin and nail beds
Used mainly for cancers of the pancreas, breast, ovary, and lung
May be given intravenously (IV), intrathecally (injected into the spinal column), as a shot into a muscle (IM), or orally (as a pill)
Used mainly for cancers of the breast, lung, head and neck, blood, bone, and lymph system
Skin rashes and photosensitivity (increased risk of sun burn)
Kidney damage (with high-dose therapy)
Used mainly with cancers of the breast, ovary, and lung
Change in taste
Thin or brittle hair; hair loss (reversible)
Joint pain (short term)
Numbness or tingling in the fingers or toes
Used mainly for lymphoma and cancers of the testis, breast, and head and neck
Constipation or abdominal cramping
Used mainly for leukemias, lymphomas, and childhood cancers
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