Chemotherapy has been used to treat cancer since the 1940s, but a lot has changed since it was first used to treat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
As one of the main treatment options for cancer, today doctors can use more than 100 chemotherapy drugs to:
- Shrink cancer tumors.
- Keep tumors from spreading.
- Kill cancer cells that have spread to other areas of the body.
- Relieve symptoms related to cancer.
“Chemotherapy is an effective way to treat many different types of cancer, but it is often used with other treatment options to maximize effectiveness,” said Dr. Seth Fagbemi, medical oncologist/hematologist at Marshfield Clinic Health System.
Your care team will often use chemotherapy with radiation therapy and surgery. A team of doctors will work with you to determine the best course of treatment. Before you start chemotherapy, here are three things you should know.
There are many types of chemotherapy
Types of chemotherapy used in treatments include:
- Biologic therapy (immunotherapy): This uses your immune system to fight cancer. Your doctor may use this with other cancer treatments to improve its effects or decrease side effects.
- Hormone therapy: Some cancer grows only if certain hormones are present. This therapy fights cancer by changing the effects of some hormones in your body. Your doctor typically will use this as a treatment option for breast, prostate and some reproductive system cancers.
- Monoclonal antibodies: Drugs that attach to the proteins on the outside of cancer cells – stopping the protein from making the cells grow. Your doctor may use this treatment with other therapies or alone.
- Targeted therapy: These drugs attempt to only kill cancer cells by targeting a function or characteristic of the cancer cells. These therapies typically come with less traditional side effects.
- Anti-angiogenesis drugs: Angiogenesis is the creation of new blood cells to feed the cancerous tumors. These drugs stop the tumor’s blood supply so it cannot grow.
- Traditional chemotherapy: These are the typical cancer drugs that also tend to affect normal cells causing many of the side effects of treatment. These drugs work many ways, including competing with cancer cells for nutrients.
“Many of these treatment options work better or worse on different types of cancers,” Fagbemi said. “We use findings from research to help us determine treatment options that are individualized to each patient.”
Chemotherapy is given via injection or orally
You may typically see chemotherapy on TV shown as an injection, but it also can be given orally as a liquid or pill.
If you need to receive chemotherapy using an injection, it can take as long as 30 minutes to eight hours to complete. Most chemotherapy treatments last 1-3 hours and are given in cycles. Cycles are the beginning of one set of treatments to the beginning of another set of treatments. It usually consists of days on treatment followed by days off treatment. This helps decrease the harm to healthy cells and allows the drugs to kill more cancer cells.
An advantage of oral chemotherapy is that you do not need to come in to the doctors’ office or hospital as regularly as if you were receiving chemotherapy via injection.
Chemotherapy can have many side effects
Since chemotherapy travels throughout the entire body and can affect normal cells, damage to healthy cells and tissue can cause side effects. The side effects depend on the type of chemotherapy you receive and your own body. People can have worse symptoms with the same drug than others.
The most serious symptoms are increased risks of infection and bleeding, generally caused by lowered blood counts.
“Your care team will need to monitor your blood cell counts regularly to make sure you are staying healthy during your treatments,” Fagbemi said.
After you receive chemotherapy, there also are many precautions you should take at home to make sure you and your family are safe. Some of these precautions relate to reducing your caregiver’s contact with bodily fluids.
To make sure you understand what side effects and precautions to watch out for, talk to a member of your care team.
I had chemo at Marshfield Clinic in 2003, followed by radiation for breast cancer, lobular carcinoma. My doctor had me on Adriamycin Cytoxan chemo for 4 sessions, then switched me to Taxotere, for 4 sessions. My doctor failed to tell me that Taxotere may cause permanent hair loss and/or that hair follicles could be destroyed. So now, 16 years later, I am still dealing with hair loss. I am thankful the chemo shrunk my tumor, but the lasting effects are devastating. Writing this so that maybe doctors would give patients the info so they can make a decision – taking chemo longer with a weaker chemo or taking a very powerful chemo and suffering long-range effects. The staff at Marshfield were great during my time of cancer treatments, and I respect them all.