Chemotherapy, Explained in Under 2 Minutes

How exactly does chemo fight cancer, anyway?

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When you think of cancer treatment, you probably think of chemo. It’s the OG cancer fighter, and it’s still a mainstay of treatment for many types of cancers. While newer cancer treatments have been introduced in the past couple of decades, chemo is still often used in conjunction with those newbies to boost their effectiveness.

Chemo is an attractive option for treating cancer because it’s a systemic treatment, as opposed to a local treatment. A local treatment targets an individual tumor and doesn’t mess with the rest of the body, and 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.

How Chemotherapy Works

Chemo is a class of drugs that takes advantage of a simple fact about cancer cells: They divide rapidly. The quick reproduction is what allows cancer to take the body hostage and develop tumors.

Chemotherapy targets and kills any rapidly dividing cell in the body, allowing it to shrink and potentially eliminate tumors. This helps disrupt the spread of cancer.

While chemotherapy can be life-saving, there is one downfall of its cancer-fighting method: Cancer cells aren’t the only cells that divide quickly. As a result, chemo knocks out some normal, healthy cells along the way. That’s why chemo is considered a coarse treatment option and is associated with such unpleasant side effects.

For example, hair cells also divide rapidly. In its indiscriminate attack against fast reproducing cells, chemo damages hair cells, resulting in hair loss. Another example is the lining of the mouth or intestines. Chemo damages these cells, resulting in mouth sores and nausea.

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 against such a difficult disease.