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What to Expect from Chemotherapy

Any diagnosis of cancer is frightening. When the diagnosis is given, most patients and loved ones immediately imagine the worst-case scenario and are overwhelmed with fear and uncertainty. The truth is that many cancers are treatable, but even the treatment can be frightening, especially chemotherapy. Here is some helpful information about what to expect from chemotherapy.

Broadly speaking, chemotherapy refers to the use of chemicals to kill cancer cells or to stop them from growing. The first step in chemotherapy usually involves a meeting with a cancer specialist called an oncologist to plan your treatment. Your doctor will review your medical records and do a physical examination. You will also have tests to help determine the right kind of treatment. Your exact treatment depends on:

  • The type, size, and location of the cancer
  • Whether you have had cancer before
  • Whether you have had chemotherapy before
  • Your age
  • Your general health
  • Other medications you are taking
  • Your reaction to the chemicals involved in chemotherapy
  • Other factors that are different for each person

For some people, chemotherapy may be the only treatment you receive. But most often, you will have chemotherapy and other cancer treatments. The types of treatment that you need depends on the type of cancer you have, if it has spread and where, and if you have other health problems.

Treatment plans can vary widely. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, “Most chemotherapy treatments are given in repeating cycles. The length of a cycle depends on the treatment being given. Most cycles ranges from 2 to 6 weeks. The number of treatment doses scheduled within each cycle also varies depending on the drugs being given. For example, each cycle may contain only 1 treatment on the first day. Or, a cycle may contain more than one dose given weekly or daily. Often after completing 2 cycles, a re-evaluation is done to make sure the treatment is working. Most people have several cycles of chemotherapy. Or the treatment cycles may continue for as long as the chemotherapy works well.”

Chemotherapy can be given through a needle into a vein. This is called intravenous or IV chemotherapy. It can also be in pills you take by mouth. This is called oral chemotherapy. Or, it can be given as a medication you put on your skin, called topical chemotherapy.

Many of the medications used in chemotherapy require special handling and in some cases, instructions or visits to a treatment center. This is especially true of IV therapies and continuous IV therapies call infusion therapies. These medications are typically delivered through “Specialty Pharmacies,” developed to help patients obtain and successfully use the medications and the equipment that might be required to inject or infuse them. Specialty pharmacies can be extremely helpful to patients, as the pharmacist is required to provide comprehensive education and training to patients and caregivers. Specialty pharmacies also work directly with doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and insurance companies to help you navigate the payment process for these complex treatments.

Unlike radiation or surgery, which target specific areas, chemotherapy works throughout your body. It targets cells that grow and divide quickly, as cancer cells do. Because it works throughout the body, side effects are likely. Side effects from chemotherapy vary from person to person. Hair loss, soreness in the mouth and throat, nausea, and fatigue are the most common. It is important to remember that the severity of side effects do not indicate whether the treatment is or is not effective. To know chemotherapy is working, you will need to see your doctor often. Your doctor will conduct physical examinations, ask you how you feel, and conduct tests to measure the changes in the area of the body being treated for cancer to determine the effectiveness of the therapy.