How does chemotherapy work?
Chemotherapy targets specific parts of the cancer cell growth cycle, which prevents the cells from growing or multiplying. We use chemotherapy in many ways:
- To cure cancer
- To slow cancer’s growth
- To relieve cancer symptoms
Sometimes, chemotherapy is enough on its own. Often, we use it in combination with another therapy, such as radiation or surgery, to help shrink or destroy cancer cells. The chemotherapy drug your doctor recommends will be based on the type of cancer you have.
How is chemotherapy given?
Chemotherapy can be given to the patient in several ways: through an IV or injection, by mouth, or as a topical medication applied to the skin. The stage and type of cancer dictate which method we use to give chemotherapy. Getting chemotherapy usually doesn’t hurt. Some IV drugs may cause a temporary burning or cold sensation. The doctor or nurse will warn you before treatment if this is expected.
Patients can take chemotherapy at home, at the doctor's office, or in the hospital. The location depends on the drugs we recommend and your health insurance requirements.
What are the possible side effects of chemotherapy?
Everyone responds to chemotherapy differently. Side effects depend on the drug itself, the dosage, and personal tolerance of the medication. Possible side effects include:
- Chemo brain (mental fogginess or fuzziness)
- Hair loss
- Weakened immune system (low white blood cell count)
Because nausea is a common side effect, the doctor may prescribe anti-nausea medications during chemotherapy. We also test each patient’s white blood cell count before we begin chemotherapy. If your count is low, we’ll give you medications to boost your immune system and ward off additional illness.
How long does chemotherapy last?
Chemotherapy treatment can range from several months to years, depending on the type of cancer, the type of drug, and how the tumor responds. Most chemotherapy drugs are given weekly or monthly, but some are given daily.
During treatment, many people can work, go to school, and participate in their regular activities. However, we encourage rest if you feel tired after treatments.
What foods, drinks, and medications are allowed during chemotherapy?
We provide nutrition services to our cancer patients. A cancer-trained dietitian will work with our patients to ensure good nutrition, which will help combat the side effects of cancer drugs. Some people tolerate chemotherapy better when they eat a light meal before and after treatment. We recommend increasing fluid intake before, during, and after chemotherapy by two to four glasses of water daily.
For many patients, one cocktail or glass of wine in a day will not be harmful. Ask your doctor if it’s safe to drink alcohol with the type of chemotherapy you’re taking.
Some types of medications may interfere with chemotherapy, including:
- Anticoagulants (blood thinners)
- Cough medicine
- Diabetes medication
The doctor will review your list of medications before starting chemotherapy to make any necessary adjustments.