Chemotherapy concerns the use of special cytotoxic drugs to treat cancers by either killing the cancer cells or slowing their growth.
Chemotherapy drugs travel around the body and attack rapidly growing cells. As cancer cells multiply very fast, they are targeted by the drugs and are destroyed. In addition, other normal cells that grow rapidly are also recognised by chemotherapy and killed. However, the breaks between bouts of chemo allow your body to regenerate normal cells and recover before the next course.
In some instances, chemotherapy may not be able to control the cancer, but indicated to relieve symptoms such as pain and help you lead as normal a life as is possible. There are many different combinations of chemotherapy used to treat various cancers, and these may have different effects on different people.
To travel the body, chemotherapy needs to enter the bloodstream and the quickest way to do this is intravenously, through a vein or artery. Other methods of administering chemotherapy may also include intra-muscular injections, tablets or creams. This method depends on a number of factors, including the type of cancer and the drugs. Talk with your doctor if you have any questions about your treatment regime.
Some cancers can be treated or cured by chemotherapy alone, while others may require a combination of chemotherapy with surgery and/or radiotherapy; this is known as adjuvant therapy. Adjuvant chemotherapy can be used before the main treatment to help make the tumour smaller, or after treatment, to kill residual cancer cells that may cause problems later in treatment.
The most common side effects of chemotherapy are nausea and vomiting, fatigue (tiredness), alopecia (hair loss), muscular, nerve and blood effects, as well as bowel (constipation or diarrhoea) and oral problems. These side effects vary from treatment to treatment and from person to person, but fortunately these problems may disappear with time or be managed to reduce the impact that they may cause.
It is important that you tell the doctors and nurses if you are experiencing any side effects from your treatment so that they can discuss an appropriate course of action with you.