Chemotherapy, or “chemo,” is the use of strong medicines to damage the cancer cell’s ability to grow and spread. It is the most common treatment for cancer and can often be used with other treatments for better results.

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Answers to Your Chemotherapy Questions

Chemotherapy is the use of oral or intravenous (IV) anticancer drugs to treat cancer cells throughout the body. In most cases, chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cell’s ability to grow or reproduce. Chemotherapy may be used alone (single-agent) for some types of cancer, or in combination with other treatments such as radiation or surgery. In some cases, a regimen in which more than one drug is used increases the odds that certain types of cancer cells will be killed.

While chemotherapy can be quite effective in treating certain cancers, chemotherapy drugs spread to all parts of the body, not just the cancer cells. Because of this, there can be many side effects during treatment. Being able to anticipate these side effects can help you and your caregivers prepare and, in some cases, prevent these symptoms from occurring.

To reduce the damage to healthy cells and to give them a chance to recover, chemotherapy is usually given in cycles. Chemotherapy may be given daily, weekly, every few weeks or monthly, depending on your situation.

Chemotherapy is usually given in an outpatient setting, such as a hospital, clinic or doctor’s office. Patients receiving chemotherapy will be watched for reactions during treatments. Since each chemotherapy treatment session can last for a long period of time, patients are encouraged to bring things that are comforting and pass the time, like music, a deck of cards or a book to read.

Chemoresistance is your body’s resistance to chemo, or cancer therapy. There are two types of chemoresistance:

  • Primary resistance: When the cancer does not respond to the first treatment.

  • Secondary resistance: When the cancer responds to a treatment for a period of time but then stops responding.

Cancers can develop resistance to chemotherapy, hormonal therapy or targeted therapy by improving their ability to get rid of the anticancer drug or find new ways within the cell to trigger cancer growth that are not affected by the anticancer drug.

There are ways to overcome resistance to treatment, like changing treatment to target the cancer cells from a different angle. Another way to overcome resistance to treatment is by adding a medication to block the pathways that are responsible for the resistance, leaving the cancer sensitive again to the same or a similar treatment.

Many different kinds of chemo medicines are used to treat cancer. Nearly all of them cause side effects.

Side effects may occur just after treatment (within minutes, hours, days or weeks). They may happen months or even years later after chemo has been given. Side effects may be severe, mild or absent. Each person's medical history, overall health and diagnosis is different. So is the reaction to treatment.

Side effects depend on the chemo medicines used and the combinations used. Before treatment starts, talk with your cancer care team about the possible side effects of your treatment. Ask about each medicine's side effects. Get written information on each medicine you're getting so you know what to watch for and what to report to your healthcare provider.

Some of the most common short-term side effects include:

  • Extreme tiredness.

  • Increased risk for infection.

  • Easy bruising and bleeding.

  • Mouth and throat sores.

  • Nausea and vomiting.

  • Diarrhea.

  • Constipation.

  • Hair loss.

  • Skin and nail changes.

  • Nerve damage.

  • No desire to eat.

  • Weight gain or loss.

  • Changes in your memory or thinking.

Possible long-term side effects include:

  • Not able to have children (infertility).

  • Memory or thinking changes.

  • Damage to certain organs, like your heart, bladder or lungs.

  • Increased risk for other kinds of cancer

Many of the short-term side effects can be controlled or even prevented. Most get better during the resting part of the chemo cycle. They usually go away over time after treatment is done.

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