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Chemotherapy in Cancer Treatment: All You Need to Know

Medically reviewed by John Paul Abrina, MD · Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

Written by Jan Alwyn Batara · Updated May 19, 2021

Chemotherapy in Cancer Treatment: All You Need to Know

What Is Chemotherapy?

One of the methods used to treat cancer is called chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses strong drugs in order to kill cancer cells. Compared to radiotherapy or surgery, which are both local treatments, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment, which means it can treat cancer almost anywhere in the body.

Strong drugs are needed since cancer cells multiply faster compared to other cells in the body, so the drugs used to kill them off need to be able to keep up with how fast the cancer cells are dividing.

However, the use of strong drugs also means that the chemotherapy process can have side effects on the body. The symptoms can be managed without much trouble, but there are rare cases when the side effects can become severe and life-threatening.

How Common Is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is not always used to treat cancer, especially if the cancer can be cured with less aggressive forms of treatment. This usually happens when the cancer is caught in an early stage, for example, very small breast cancers that have been detected through screening mammograms.

However, if the cancer has spread to different parts of the body, the chemotherapy process is usually recommended. Because it is a systemic kind of treatment, it can target cells throughout the entire body.

Chemotherapy may also be used in advanced stages of cancer (ie, stage II-III cancers). This can be done before or after the primary local treatment for your cancer which could be surgery or radiotherapy.

chemotherapy process

How Is Chemotherapy Done?

Before undergoing chemotherapy, an oncologist will consider what stage the patient’s cancer is in, as well as what type of cancer it is before recommending chemotherapy.

The oncologist also puts into consideration the health of the patient, and whether or not the patient can handle the possible side effects of chemotherapy.

If it is deemed that the patient is healthy enough to undergo chemotherapy, then the oncologist chooses which combination of drugs would work the best, as well as the dosage, frequency, and duration of treatment.

There are various ways that a patient can be given chemotherapy drugs. These include the following:

  • Chemotherapy drugs can be given just like a flu shot and injected into the bloodstream.
  • Some drugs are given intravenously, which means that a needle connected to a tube will be inserted into a vein in the arm or chest. This means that the drugs go inside the patient’s body.
  • Some drugs can be taken as pills or capsules.
  • For some types of skin cancer, creams can be recommended to directly kill off any cancer cells.
  • For more aggressive forms of cancer, small disk-shaped wafers that contain chemotherapy drugs might directly be placed near a tumor during surgery.

A patient undergoing the chemotherapy process does not need to be taking the drugs the entire time their cancer is being treated. A period of rest and recovery is also needed for the body to be strong enough to handle another bout of chemotherapy.

The oncologist will also be monitoring the patient’s condition during this time and see if the chemotherapy process is working to kill off the cancer cells. The treatment might be adjusted depending on how effective it is.

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When Is Chemotherapy Usually Prescribed?

Chemotherapy is not always used to cure cancer. It can also be used to reduce the size of tumors before surgery, or to kill stray cancer cells in the body after other forms of treatment such as radiotherapy have been done.

Here are some other instances where the chemotherapy process might be prescribed by your oncologist:

  • It may be used to make tumors more manageable before undergoing surgery or radiotherapy.
  • Or chemotherapy may be used to kill off stray cancer cells and prevent it from recurring.
  • Chemotherapy might also be recommended if the cancer has spread to different parts of the body.
  • Certain types of cancer, such as blood cancer are more sensitive to chemotherapy, which makes it an effective form of treatment.
  • It might also be used in conjunction with radiotherapy, in a process called chemoradiotherapy. However, this could have more side effects for the patient.
  • Usually, chemotherapy is prescribed to patients whose cancer is at Stage II or higher. At Stage I, the cancer can be treated with radiotherapy or surgery.
  • For patients whose cancer is terminal, chemotherapy might also be prescribed as a means of controlling the spread of cancer.

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What Side Effects Does Chemotherapy Have?

The side effects of chemotherapy can vary depending on what type of drugs are being prescribed, the type of cancer the patient has, as well as the patient’s current state of health.

Here are some of the possible side effects that a patient undergoing the chemotherapy process might experience:

  • Nausea or dizziness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue or feeling weak
  • Hair loss
  • Constipation
  • Mouth sores or bleeding
  • Weakened immune system
  • It is also possible for a patient to experience more severe and long-term side effects depending on the types of chemotherapy drugs used to treat their condition. Here are some of the more adverse side effects:

    • The risk of heart problems can be increased as a result of chemotherapy.
    • Chemotherapy can also damage lung tissue.
    • Infertility is another possible side effect.
    • Kidney problems can sometimes be a side effect of the chemotherapy process.
    • Nerve damage is also a possible side effect.

    It is very important to talk to your doctor about these possible side effects before undergoing any form of chemotherapy. It would also be best to ask your doctor about other possible options if you are worried about chemotherapy.

    Chemotherapy is a balancing act that minimizes side-effects and prevents long-term damage. It is worth noting that cancer is a life-long commitment that extends beyond treatment. Nowadays, cancer survival rates are higher, but it entails regular follow-up with your doctor to manage side-effects you might develop.

    Lifestyle Changes & Home Remedies

    What Are Some Lifestyle Changes and Home Remedies that Can Help Me Manage the Side Effects of Chemotherapy?

    Here are some lifestyle changes and home remedies that can help manage the possible side effects of the chemotherapy process:

    • Stay healthy by eating healthy food. These include fruits and vegetables, while eating processed food should be avoided.
    • Wash your hands to make sure you do not get infected with diseases. Your immune system will be compromised if you are undergoing chemotherapy.
    • Don’t smoke. If you are a smoker, it would be best to take this opportunity to quit smoking.
    • Avoid drinking alcohol if you are undergoing chemotherapy.
    • Stay active if you can. Daily exercise keeps your body healthy and in good shape. 
    • Take care to not get any cuts or scrapes while undergoing chemotherapy. It could take a long time to heal, and could possibly get infected.

    If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

    Read also:

    Health Habits That Can Lower Your Risk of Cancer

    What Illnesses or Viruses Can Cause Cancer?


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    John Paul Abrina, MD

    Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

    Written by Jan Alwyn Batara · Updated May 19, 2021

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