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Definition

Chemotherapy is a treatment used to kill cancer cells. It involves taking medicines that are toxic to fast-growing cells like cancer cells.

Reasons for Procedure

Chemotherapy is used to treat cancer. The goal is to reduce the number of cancer cells or decrease the size of tumors.

Side Effects

Many types of chemotherapy drugs not only damage the cancer cells but can also damage some of your normal cells. This can create side effects. Side effects will vary between chemotherapy treatments. Your doctor will review a list of possible side effects for your treatment type. Some side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Appetite loss
  • Hair loss
  • Low red blood cell count — anemia
  • Weakened immune system and increased infections
  • Fatigue
  • Easy bruising and/or bleeding
  • Mouth sores
  • Numbness and tingling sensation in the hands and/or feet, or weakness due to nerve damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Damage to the heart muscle
  • Infertility
  • Interruption of the menstrual period

You and your doctor will talk about options to help relieve some of these side effects.

What to Expect

Prior to Procedure

You may be asked to take some pre-medicines such as:

  • Steroids
  • Allergy medicines, such as an anti-histamine
  • Anti-nausea medicines
  • Sedatives
  • Antibiotics

Description of the Procedure

Your doctor will talk to you about the best way to deliver the medicine(s). Chemotherapy drugs may be given by:

  • Mouth
  • Injection into a muscle or vein (IV)
  • Catheter tube into the bladder, abdomen, chest cavity, brain, spinal cord, or liver
  • Application to the skin
Chemotherapy Through Cardiovascular System
Chemotherapy
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How Long Will It Take?

How long it will take depends on the method used, the number of medicines, and the amount of each medicine. A session may be as brief as the time it takes to swallow a pill. It could also take several hours or last overnight. Some types of chemotherapy can be given as a continuous infusion through a portable pump.

Will It Hurt?

The treatment may cause a number of uncomfortable side effects. The delivery of the chemotherapy usually does not hurt.

Average Hospital Stay

Most often, you can leave after the medicine is delivered. Some chemotherapy regimens will require a stay in the hospital. This may be about 2-3 days.

Your doctor may choose to keep you in the hospital if you have complications, such as severe vomiting.

Post-procedure Care

At the Hospital

You may be given any of the following:

  • Medicines to take at home, such as anti-nausea medicine
  • Injections of an immune-system or blood cell boosting drug
  • Other drugs, including steroids, allergy medicines, sedatives, and antibiotics
At Home

When you return home, do the following to help ensure a smooth recovery:

When you return home, do the following to help ensure a smooth recovery:

  • Get a lot of sleep.
  • Try to do some physical activity each day. Exercise can help to reduce fatigue.
  • Try to eat a healthy diet.
  • Drink lots of fluids to avoid dehydration .
  • Use special mouth rinses to avoid or treat mouth sores.
  • Administer post-chemotherapy shots if they are prescribed by your doctor. These will help to keep your blood count stable.
  • Try to avoid people with diseases that can be spread easily, including children. Chemotherapy will likely weaken your immune system. Viral illnesses, such as the cold or flu , can have serious effects.
  • Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions .

Your doctor may order any of the following tests to check the progress of your treatment:

Call Your Doctor

After you leave the hospital, contact your doctor if any of the following occur:

  • Signs of infection, including fever and chills
  • Sores in your mouth, throat, or lips
  • White patches in your mouth
  • Difficulty/pain with swallowing
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Vomiting that prevents you from holding down fluids
  • Blood in your vomit
  • Easy bruising
  • Nosebleeds, bleeding gums, new vaginal bleeding
  • Blood in your urine or stool
  • Burning or frequency of urination
  • Cough, trouble breathing, or chest pain
  • Severe weakness
  • Shortness of breath or cough
  • Calf pain, swelling, or redness in the legs or feet
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge, itching, or odor
  • New pain or pain that you cannot control with the medication you were given
  • Numbness, tingling, or pain in your extremities
  • Joint pain, stiffness, rash, or other new symptoms
  • Redness, swelling, increasing pain, excessive bleeding, or a pimple at the site of your IV
  • Headache, stiff neck
  • Hearing or vision changes
  • Ringing in your ears
  • Exposure to someone with an infectious illness, including chickenpox
  • Weight gain or loss of 10 pounds or more

In case of an emergency, call for medical help right away.

Revision Information

  • American Cancer Society

    http://www.cancer.org

  • National Cancer Institute

    http://www.cancer.gov

  • Cancer Care Ontario

    http://www.cancercare.on.ca

  • Canadian Cancer Society

    http://www.cancer.ca

  • Abeloff MD. Clinical Oncology . 2nd ed. New York, NY: Churchill Livingstone; 2000.

  • Chemotherapy and you. National Institutes of Health website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/chemotherapy-and-you . Accessed April 3, 2013.

  • Understanding chemotherapy. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/chemo-side-effects/understandingchemo . Updated August 2008. Accessed April 3, 2013.

  • 10/26/2009 DynaMed Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : Adamsen L, Quist M, Andersen C, et al. Effect of a multimodal high intensity exercise intervention in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy: randomised controlled trial. BMJ . 2009;339:b3410.