Chemotherapy concerns the use of special cytotoxic drugs to treat cancers by either killing cancer cells or slowing their growth. Chemotherapy drugs travel around the body and attack rapidly growing cells, which may also include healthy cells in the body as well as cancer cells. However, the breaks between bouts of chemo allow the body's normal cells to recover before the next course of chemo.
To travel through the body, chemotherapy needs to enter the bloodstream and the quickest way to do this is intravenously - through a vein or artery. Other methods of administering chemotherapy may take the form of intra-muscular injections, tablets or creams. The way you have chemotherapy depends on a number of factors including the type of cancer you have and the drugs that you are taking. Talk with your doctor if you have any questions about your treatment regime.
Some cancers can be treated or cured by chemotherapy alone, while some treatments may combine chemotherapy with other procedures such as surgery or radiotherapy - this is known as adjuvant therapy. Adjuvant chemotherapy can be used before the main treatment to help make the tumour smaller, or after treatment to kill residual cancer cells that may later cause problems in treatment.
In some instances, chemotherapy may not be able to control the cancer but may be used to relieve symptoms such as pain and help you lead as normal a life as possible.
There are many different combinations of chemotherapy used to treat various cancers, and these may have different effects on different people.
Side Effects of Chemotherapy
While chemotherapy is useful for the killing of cancer cells in the body, as with most other treatments, patients may experience side effects from the chemotherapy. These side effects vary from treatment to treatment and from person to person but fortunately these problems usually disappear with time or can be managed to reduce their impact.
The most common side effects are nausea and vomiting, fatigue (tiredness), alopecia (hair loss), muscular, nerve and blood effects as well as bowel (constipation or diarrhoea) and oral problems.
It is important that you tell the doctors and nurses if you are experiencing any side effects from your treatment so that they can discuss an appropriate course of action with you.