Medical Oncology is commonly known as chemotherapy or “chemo” and uses drugs to destroy cancer cells. Although surgery and radiation therapy destroy cancer cells in a specific area, chemotherapy works throughout the body. Chemotherapy drugs can destroy cancer cells that have metastasized or spread to parts of the body far from the primary (original) tumor. Chemo may be the only kind of treatment a patient needs, or it may be combined with other forms of treatment and also may be used (alone or along with other forms of treatment) to relieve symptoms of the disease.
Although a single chemotherapy drug can be used to treat cancer, generally they are more powerful when used with other drugs, so chemotherapy treatment might consist of more than one drug. A combination of drugs with different actions can work together to kill more cancer cells and reduce the chance that you may become resistant to a particular chemotherapy drug. You and your doctor will decide which drug or combination of drugs, dosages, and way it will be given, and frequency and length of treatment are best for you. All of these decisions will depend on the type of cancer, its location, the extent of its growth, how it is affecting your normal body functions, and your general health.
How it works
Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles: a treatment period (one or more days when treatment is given) followed by a recovery period (several days or weeks), then another treatment period, and so on. Most chemotherapy is given by injection into a vein through an IV, but some are injected into a muscle or under the skin; and some are given by mouth.
Often, patients who need many doses of IV chemotherapy receive the drugs through a catheter or port (a thin, flexible tube) that stays in place until treatment is over. One end of the catheter is placed in a large vein in the arm or the chest; the other end remains outside the body. Patients who have catheters avoid the discomfort of having a needle inserted into a vein for each treatment. Patients and their families learn how to care for the port and keep it clean.
Usually a patient has chemotherapy as an outpatient at the Cancer Center. However, depending on which drugs are given, the dose, how they are given, and the patient’s general health, a short hospital stay may be needed.
Most people have questions and concerns about side effects and what they will be like. It’s important to remember that every person doesn’t get every side effect, and some people get few, if any.
Side effects vary greatly from person to person and depend on the drugs and doses a patient receives. Generally, anticancer drugs affect cells that divide rapidly. In addition to cancer cells, these include blood cells, which fight infection, help the blood to clot, and carry oxygen to all parts of the body. When blood cells are affected by the chemotherapy, patients are more likely to get infections, may bruise or bleed easily, and may feel weak and very tired. Rapidly dividing cells in hair roots and cells that line the digestive tract may also be affected. As a result, side effects might include loss of hair, poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea.
The physicians and staff offers helpful guidance and advice in managing these side effects if they occur. Your doctor and the nursing staff will tell which side effects are most likely to occur with your chemotherapy, how long they might last, and when you should seek medical attention for them. Your doctor may prescribe medications to prevent some side effects before they appear, and our Dietitian can also help with advice on managing side effects.
Hair loss is a major concern for many people with cancer. Some anticancer drugs only cause the hair to thin, while others may result in the loss of all body hair. Hair grows back after treatment is over. A patient can prepare to cope with possible hair loss before starting treatment by getting a wig or hat, available free of charge through the Cancer Center’s Wig Boutique located in the Resource Room.