Being prepared and understanding chemotherapy can help lessen some of the stress surrounding your treatment.
Ask your oncologist, doctor or nurse any questions you have about the risks and benefits of chemotherapy.
What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy (or “chemo”) is the use of anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. Combination therapy is when a number of drugs may be given at the same time. Sometimes only one drug is used. Chemotherapy may be used before or after surgery or radiation therapy, or together with radiation therapy.
How is chemotherapy given?
How chemotherapy is given will depend on the type of cancer being treated and the drugs being used. Treatment may be given:
- through a needle inserted into a vein, slowly injecting the medication through a catheter (a special tube), placed in a large vein, usually in the neck or chest which remains there throughout the course of the treatment
- by introducing drugs directly into an organ or tissue affected by cancer as a cream you apply to your skin.
Is chemotherapy painful?
Chemotherapy should cause no discomfort, although having a needle inserted into a vein may feel like giving blood.
The initial injection for a temporary tube (canula) may be uncomfortable.
If at any time a chemotherapy injection hurts or burns, immediately tell the nurse who is giving you the drug.
If after your treatment you notice some tenderness develop over the injection site, contact the chemotherapy unit immediately.
Why is chemotherapy given?
Chemotherapy may be used:
- to cure cancer. With some types of cancer, chemotherapy will destroy all the cancer cells and cure the disease
- to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back. Chemotherapy may be given after surgery or radiation therapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells that are too small to see
- to shrink a cancer prior to surgery or radiation therapy, to increase the success of your primary treatment
- to shrink a cancer, to improve symptoms and to prolong life in cases where cure is not possible.
How often and how long is chemotherapy?
It depends on the type of cancer you have, the way it responds to treatment and your ability to tolerate the treatment. Your doctor will talk to you about the time period planned for your course of treatment. You may have chemotherapy over 3 to 6 months but treatment may also be shorter or longer.
You will usually have several treatment cycles with periods of rest in between to allow normal cells to recover. These can be given over a few days, weeks or months, and some on a long-term basis.
Maintenance chemotherapy to prevent cancer coming back; and palliative treatment to control the cancer, may continue for months or even years.
If you are worried about how long the treatment is taking or the impact of side effects, talk to your treatment team.
Where is treatment given?
Chemotherapy is usually given during the day as an outpatient in a hospital or treatment centre. Sometimes a short stay in hospital is necessary if it is a longer or more complex chemotherapy treatment. In some cases, you can have chemotherapy treatment at home.
Chemotherapy side effects
Chemotherapy can produce side effects in some but not all people. Different chemotherapy drugs cause different side effects. Most are often temporary and can be treated or managed. Possible side effects include:
- nausea and vomiting
- diarrhoea or constipation (often due to anti-nausea medication)
- fatigue (tiredness)
- mouth sores or ulcers
- increased risk of infection
- increased risk of bruising
- hair loss
- muscle weakness
- skin sensitivity to sunlight (specific drugs only)
- changes to the nails
- dry or tired eyes
- changes in appetite
- changes in fertility
- thinking and memory changes.
Having any of the above side effects is not related to whether the chemotherapy is working or not.
Remember, if you have any concerns or questions, please contact your doctor.
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