Chemotherapy is an aggressive form of chemical drug therapy meant to destroy rapidly growing cells in the body. It’s usually used to treat cancer, as cancer cells grow and divide faster than other cells.

A doctor who specializes in cancer treatment is known as an oncologist. They’ll work with you to come up with your treatment plan.

Chemotherapy is often used in combination with other therapies, such as surgery, radiation, or hormone therapy. The use of combination therapy depends on:

  • the stage and type of cancer you have
  • your overall health
  • previous cancer treatments you’ve had
  • the location of the cancer cells
  • your personal treatment preferences

It’s considered a systemic treatment, which means it affects the entire body.

Chemotherapy has been proven to effectively attack cancer cells, but it can cause serious side effects that can severely impact your quality of life. You should weigh these side effects against the risk of going untreated when deciding if chemotherapy is right for you.

Chemotherapy is primarily used to:

  • lower the total number of cancer cells in your body
  • reduce the likelihood of cancer spreading
  • shrink tumor size
  • reduce current symptoms

If you’ve undergone surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, such as a lumpectomy for breast cancer, your oncologist may recommend chemotherapy to ensure that any lingering cancer cells are killed, as well.

Chemotherapy is also used to prepare you for other treatments. It could be used to shrink a tumor so it can be surgically removed, or to prepare you for radiation therapy.

In the case of late-stage cancer, chemotherapy may help relieve pain.

Besides treatment for cancer, chemotherapy may be used to prepare people with bone marrow diseases for a bone marrow stem cell treatment, and it may be used for immune system disorders.

Doses much lower than those used to treat cancer can be used to help disorders in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells, like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.

Chemotherapy is designed to kill cells that divide quickly. While cancer cells are the kind that divide quickly, other cells in your body do this, as well.

Cells in the following areas can be adversely affected by chemotherapy:

  • blood
  • hair
  • skin
  • lining of your intestinal tract

Because of this, the side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • easy bruising and excessive bleeding
  • diarrhea
  • dry mouth
  • mouth sores
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • hair loss
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • weight loss
  • pain from nerve damage
  • infections
  • anemia
  • constipation
  • neuropathy
  • lymphedema
  • memory problems
  • concentration problems
  • skin changes
  • nail changes
  • insomnia
  • sexual changes
  • fertility changes

Your doctor can help you manage these side effects with medications, lifestyle tips, and more.

Long-term effects

Most side effects of chemotherapy subside when treatment is over. But there’s also the risk of long-lasting effects that may develop even years after treatment, depending on the type of chemotherapy used.

These effects could include damage to the:

  • heart
  • kidneys
  • lungs
  • nerves
  • reproductive organs

There’s also the chance of developing a second cancer as a result of chemotherapy. Before beginning treatment, talk to your doctor about the possible risks and what symptoms you should be aware of.

As chemotherapy is a serious treatment for a serious condition, it’s important to plan ahead before beginning therapy. Your doctor and hospital staff will help you anticipate the potential problems associated with treatment.

Before you begin therapy, you’ll undergo a series of tests to help determine if you’re healthy enough for chemotherapy. This will include examinations of your heart and blood tests to determine the health of your liver.

These tests can also help guide your doctor in deciding which types of chemotherapy to use in your treatment.

Your doctor may also recommend that you visit your dentist before beginning treatment. Since chemotherapy affects your body’s ability to heal, any infection in your gums or teeth could potentially spread throughout your body.

Your doctor may install a portif you’re getting chemotherapy through an intravenous (IV) line.

A port is a device that’s implanted in your body, typically in your chest near your shoulder. This allows for easier access to your veins and is less painful. During each treatment, the IV will be inserted into your port.

Preparation tips

Consider these preparation tips for chemotherapy treatment:

  • Make arrangements for work. Most people can work during chemotherapy, but you may want to be put on a lighter workload until you know what types of side effects you may be experiencing.
  • Prepare your house. Do laundry, stock up on groceries, and do other tasks you may be too weak to do after your first appointment
  • Arrange for any help you might need. Getting a friend or family member to help with household chores or caring for pets or children can be extremely beneficial.
  • Anticipate side effects. Ask your doctor what side effects you may experience and how to plan accordingly. If infertility could be a side effect and you want to conceive a child, you may want to store and freeze sperm, eggs, or fertilized embryos. You may want to purchase head covers or wigs if hair loss is likely.
  • Begin therapy or join a support group. Talking to someone outside of your family and circle of friends about what you’re going through can help you remain optimistic. It can also help calm any fears you may have about treatment.

You and your doctor can work together to consider all variables and determine the best course of your treatment.

Chemotherapy is typically given in pill form or directly into veins by injection or an IV. In addition to these two forms, chemotherapy may also be administered in several other ways.

Chemotherapy delivery options include the following:

  • Chemotherapy can be delivered directly into the tumor, depending on the tumor’s location. If you undergo surgery to remove the tumor, your doctor can implant slow-dissolving discs that release medications over time.
  • Some skin cancers can be treated with chemotherapy creams.
  • Chemotherapy can be delivered to a specific part of the body through localized treatment, such as directly into the abdomen, chest, central nervous system, or into the bladder through the urethra.
  • Some types of chemotherapy can be taken by mouth through pills.
  • Liquid chemotherapy drugs can be delivered in single shots, or you can have a port installed where a needle is inserted for each treatment. The infusion method with a port only involves pain at the injection site during the first visit, but the port needle can loosen depending on your level of activity.

Where you receive treatment depends on your chosen delivery method. For instance, if you use creams or pills, you can give yourself treatments at home. Other procedures are usually performed at a hospital or a cancer treatment center.

Your chemotherapy schedule, as in how often you receive treatment, will be customized for you. It can be changed if your body doesn’t handle the treatment well, or it can be increased or decreased depending on how well the cancer cells react to treatments.

Your doctor and cancer treatment team will regularly monitor the effectiveness of your treatments. These will include imaging techniques, blood tests, and possibly more. Your doctor can adjust your treatment at any time.

The more you share with your doctor about how chemotherapy is affecting you, the better your treatment experience will be.

You’ll want to tell your doctor about any side effects or treatment-related problems you’re having so that they can make adjustments to your treatment if necessary.