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Understanding Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy (“chemo”) is a treatment for cancer. Chemo can be a single medication. Or, it can be a combination of medications. When used alone or along with surgery or radiation therapy, it can often shrink a tumor or prevent its spread.

Chemotherapy bag hanging on IV pole with tubing going through infusion pump to port in arm.
Chemotherapy is often given in an outpatient setting.

How Chemotherapy Works

Chemo kills cells that grow quickly. This is why it kills cancer cells. But it also affects healthy cells that grow fast. This includes cells in the mouth and stomach lining, bone marrow, skin, and hair. This is why side effects, such as hair loss, nausea, and low blood cell counts, occur. As a rule, chemo is given in cycles of treatment. There is a time of no treatment between cycles. This lets normal cells recover before the next cycle begins.

The Goals of Chemotherapy

Chemo can kill cancer cells. As a result, it may do the following:

  • Shrink cancer before surgery

  • Rid the body of cancer cells that remain after surgery

  • Reduce symptoms (such as pain)

  • Control cancer for a period of time

  • Cause remission (no evidence of the disease on medical testing)

  • Cure cancer (no evidence of the disease years after treatment)

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

When healthy cells are damaged, side effects may develop including:

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Hair loss

  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)

  • Infections

  • Bleeding

  • Mouth and throat sores

  • Skin changes (dry skin, itching, acne)

  • Lack of interest in sex

  • Trouble remembering and concentrating

  • Stress and depression

Long-Term Risks and Complications

There are some long-term risks with chemo. But the benefits usually outweigh the risks. Risks depend on the type of chemo used. Some possible long-term risks include:

  • Infertility

  • Damage to certain organs, such as the heart, kidneys, liver, or lungs

  • Lasting nerve damage

  • Another cancer forming at a later time

Online Medical Reviewer: Alteri, Rick, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Foster, Sarah, RN, MPH
Last Review Date: 12/5/2012
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