Here’s how this cancer-fighting treatment works.
When you think of cancer treatment, the first thing that may come to mind is chemotherapy. That’s because chemotherapy has been a cancer-fighting mainstay since it was invented in the 1940s.
Chemotherapy, often called “chemo,” is an attractive option for treating cancer because it’s a systemic treatment, as opposed to a local treatment. A local treatment (such as surgery or radiation) removes, kills, or damages cancer cells in a certain area and doesn’t mess with the rest of the body. A systemic treatment targets cancer cells that are spread all over the body, according to the American Cancer Society.
Systemic treatments are effective—and necessary—in later stages of cancer treatment if the cancer has metastasized, or spread, beyond the original tumor site. As a systemic treatment for cancer, chemotherapy can help eliminate the traveling cancer cells throughout the body and help prevent cancer recurrence.
Even though there are newer therapies available today, the type of cancer treatment a patient gets is dependent on the type of cancer the patient has. Many times, chemo is still the best treatment option. Chemo is also often used in conjunction with the other therapies to boost their effectiveness.
How Chemotherapy Works
There are more than a hundred different types of chemo. These therapies differ in their chemical composition, how they are taken, their usefulness in treating specific forms of cancer, and their side effects.
As a class of drugs however, they all focus on one thing: killing rapidly dividing cells. Cancer cells tend to form new cells more quickly than normal cells, which makes them a better target for chemotherapy drugs. Chemo kills these rapidly dividing cancer cells in the body, allowing it to shrink and potentially eliminate tumors.
While chemo can be life-saving, there is one downfall of its cancer-fighting method: Cancer cells aren’t the only cells that divide quickly. Chemo drugs can’t tell the difference between healthy cells and cancer cells, so it knocks down some healthy cells as well.
This can cause many unpleasant side effects, such as:
Nausea and vomiting
Constipation and diarrhea
Nerve and muscle problems
Skin and nail changes
And fertility problems.
When doctors administer chemo, they aim to find a balance between killing the cancer cells (in order to cure or control the disease) and sparing the normal cells (to lessen side effects).
Although newer treatment types for cancer (namely immunotherapy and targeted therapy) do not create as many side effects, these therapies do not work against all cancer types.
Chemo may not be perfect, but there’s no denying how helpful it’s been in fighting such a difficult disease.
Dr. Saxena is an oncologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian.
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Chemotherapy is a broad term that
includes many different types of drugs,
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most of which are given intravenously.
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And that kills cancer cells mainly by
attacking their ability to grow and
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divide in different ways.
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In general, most of the chemotherapies
are given intravenously.
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So through a vein,
either through an IV or through a port.
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Sometimes there are chemotherapies that
can be given by mouth by pills, but
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they're usually given intravenously.
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The type that you would get depends on
what type of cancer is being treated and
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what the goal of the treatment is, whether
it's to get rid of the cancer completely
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and not have it come back, or
just to control the cancer.
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So there isn't really a particular
type that's the most common.
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So it really depends on
what you're treating.
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The duration of chemotherapy
in total depends
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a lot on what the chemotherapy
is being given for.
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So if it's being given to help
prevent cancer from coming back,
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a lot of times there's a set number
of times that you'll get it.
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It may be three months,
it may be six months, and then after that,
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the standard would be just to stop.
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Other times if the chemotherapy
is meant to control the disease,
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they may continue it for longer,
for years, as long as it's working.
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So there's a big variability and it
depends on what you're being treated for
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and what the treatment drugs are,
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After a person is completely
finished with their chemotherapy,
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we recommend that they maintain a healthy
lifestyle as we would with almost anybody.
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Which includes eating healthy and getting
exercise, following up with the doctor
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to get routine checkups, and
also letting the doctor know if you have
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side effects from chemotherapy that
are continuing after being done.
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So then the doctor may be able
to do something about them or
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direct you to another physician
who can help with them.
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Chemotherapy. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society. (Accessed on July 10, 2019 at https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/chemotherapy.html.)
How chemotherapy drugs work. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, 2016. (Accessed on July 10, 2019 at https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/chemotherapy/how-chemotherapy-drugs-work.html.)How is chemotherapy used to treat cancer. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, 2016. (Accessed on July 10. 2019 at https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/chemotherapy/how-is-chemotherapy-used-to-treat-cancer.html.)