What Is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy (also called chemo) is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to destroy cancer cells.

How Does Chemotherapy Work?

Chemotherapy works by stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, which grow and divide quickly.  But it can also harm healthy cells that also divide quickly such as those which line your mouth and intestines or allow your hair to grow.  Damage to healthy cells may cause side effects.  Often, side effects get better or go away after chemotherapy is over.

What Does Chemotherapy Do?’

Depending on your type of cancer and how advanced it is, chemotherapy can:

  • Cure cancer–when chemotherapy destroys cancer cells to the point that your doctor can no longer detect them in your body and they will not grow back.  The chemotherapy treatment is an attempt to cure but is not a guarantee
  • Ease cancer symptoms–(also called palliative treatment)–when chemotherapy keeps cancer from spreading, slows its growth, shrinks or destroys cancer cells that have spread to other parts of your body.  Chemotherapy may be used to shrink a tumor that is causing pain or pressure

How Is Chemotherapy Used?

Sometimes, chemotherapy is used as the only cancer treatment.  But more often, you will get chemotherapy along with surgery, radiation therapy, or biological therapy.  Chemotherapy can:

  • Make a tumor smaller before surgery or radiation therapy.  This is called neo-adjuvant chemotherapy
  • Destroy cancer cells that may remain after surgery or radiation therapy.  This is called adjuvant chemotherapy
  • Help radiation therapy or biological therapy work better
  • Destroy cancer cells that have come back (recurrent cancer) or spread to other parts of your body (metastatic cancer)

Why Side Effects Occur

Short-term side effects occur because many chemotherapy drugs act on normal cells as well as cancer cells.  Fast growing cells are the most affected.  This includes cells that make up hair, skin, the digestive tract and blood.  Chemotherapy can also affect certain other cells, such as those in the nervous system and organs (such as heart, kidneys, liver and lungs).  They may also impact fertility.  Some chemotherapy drugs may have long-term effects.  For example, another cancer could occur at a later time as a result of taking chemotherapy.  If you have any questions regarding this matter, please ask your doctor or nurse.

The Treatment Cycle

Chemotherapy is given in cycles.  First, you have a treatment.  Then, time is set aside for your body to build healthy cells before the next treatment.  During this resting time, the body goes through different phases as it mends.  One phase is the ‘nadir’ period.  During the ‘nadir’ period, certain blood cells decrease in number.  Your doctor or nurse will help you learn what to expect during this phase of your cycle.

WMCC Chemotherapy/Biotherapy Patient Guide

Access our detailed, 42 page guide to help you manage your health as you undergo chemotherapy.

View Guide Now

WMCC Infusion Room