Definition and Overview

Chemotherapy is one of the most commonly prescribed treatment procedures for cancer. It relies on the ability of specific drugs to destroy the cancerous cells that attack the body. It works either by slowing down the growth of the cells or stopping it completely. However, cancer patients need to consider the treatment very carefully before they undergo the procedure. This is because, in the process of destroying the malignant cells, chemotherapy can also harm the healthy cells that divide quickly. These include the cells that cause hair to grow as well as those that line the mouth and the intestines. This action is what causes the side effects such as hair loss and severe abdominal pain during treatment.

How Chemotherapy works

There are three different functions of chemotherapy, although the extent to which it fulfills these functions tends to differ for each patient depending on the stage and severity of the cancer.

Chemo, as it is commonly known, is expected to:

  • Cure cancer – Chemotherapy can destroy the cancer cells completely until they can no longer be detected. The procedure is said to successfully cure the disease if it does not grow back.
  • Treat the cancer – Chemo can inhibit the further spreading of the cancerous cells by stunting their growth. However, in several cases, the procedure only works for as long as the person is continuously undergoing it. Once the treatment stops, the cancerous cells may begin growing again.
  • Relieve the symptoms of cancer – Chemo can be specifically used to target certain cancerous tumors that cause pressure or pain on the affected body parts.
  • Increase vulnerability to infections

Chemo may also be used alongside other types of cancer treatment, such as surgery, biological therapy, and radiation therapy. Here are the specific roles that chemotherapy plays when used in a combination of treatment options:

  • Neo-adjuvant chemotherapy - Chemo may be used to shrink a tumor prior to surgical removal.
  • Adjuvant chemotherapy – This means that the chemotherapy treatment is only used as a follow up to either destroy the cancer cells that got left behind after surgical removal or radiation therapy.

Side effects

Chemotherapy is known for causing several side effects, which include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Anemia
  • Bruising
  • Bleeding
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleeping problem
  • Constipation
  • Depression

To minimize the side effects, most doctors administer chemo based on a cycle that is maintained all throughout the treatment period. This cycle often involves a continuous period of treatment followed by a specific period of rest. Each cycle usually takes a month or 4 weeks; based on certain factors, a patient may receive a week of treatment followed by three weeks of rest or vice versa. This rest period helps prevent side effects because it gives the patient's body the much-needed time to produce healthy cells to replace the ones that were affected.

Where to seek treatment

Chemotherapy can be provided either at home or in hospitals. It can also be performed on an outpatient basis either in a doctor's office or hospital outpatient unit. Regardless of where you decide to receive treatment, the process is the same. Your primary doctor will administer the chemotherapy drugs regularly and monitor you for side effects, improvements, or other changes in the status of the disease. If needed, your doctor may make some changes to the drugs being used during treatment.

The specific combination of chemotherapy drugs that are used differs based on:

  • The cancer type or location
  • Medical history or history of cancer and previous treatments
  • Other health problems not related to cancer

Likewise, the schedule for drug administration also varies per patient. This will ultimately depend on the following factors:

  • The cancer type or location
  • The severity of the disease or what stage it is in
  • The expected results from chemotherapy
  • Individual physical reactions to the treatment

Administering chemotherapy

Chemotherapy may be administered by health professionals through:

  • Local injection
  • IA or intra-arterial
  • IP or intraperitoneal
  • IV or intravenous
  • Topical drug application
  • Oral medications

When should you see an Oncologist?

Contact an oncologist immediately if you experience any of the warning signs and symptoms listed below.

  • High temperature exceeding 38 degrees Celsius
  • Chills
  • Breathing problems
  • Chest pain
  • Unexplained muscle aches and pains
  • Bleeding nose
  • Bleeding gums
  • Bleeding from other body parts that cannot be controlled by applying pressure for 10 minutes
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea


  • “Chemotherapy”. NHS Choices
  • “Chemotherapy”. Cancer Research UK
  • “Chemotherapy facts”. Medicine Net
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