Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Chemotherapy

What is chemotherapy?
How is chemotherapy administered?
What are some of the chemotherapy drugs and their potential side effects?

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer drugs to treat cancerous cells. Chemotherapy has been used for many years and is one of the most common treatments for cancer. In most cases, chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cell’s ability to grow or reproduce. Different groups of drugs work in different ways to fight cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used alone for some types of cancer or in combination with other treatments such as radiation or surgery. Often, a combination of chemotherapy drugs is used to fight a specific cancer. Certain chemotherapy drugs may be given in a specific order depending on the type of cancer it is being used to treat.

While chemotherapy can be quite effective in treating certain cancers, chemotherapy drugs reach all parts of the body, not just the cancer cells. Because of this range, there may 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.

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How is chemotherapy administered?

Chemotherapy can be given:

  • As a pill to swallow.
  • As an injection into the muscle or fat tissue.
  • Intravenously (directly to the bloodstream; also called IV).
  • Topically (applied to the skin).
  • Directly into a body cavity.

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What are some of the chemotherapy drugs and their potential side effects?

The science of chemotherapy is changing rapidly. There are more than 50 chemotherapy drugs that are commonly used, and many of these may be used in combinations.

As each person’s individual medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his or her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team any/all possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins. It is important to understand the benefits and potential side-effects of the chemotherapy drugs prescribed by your health care provider. Ask questions until you are satisfied you understand.  You also may obtain more information about chemotherapy by visiting Massey's patient resources libraries or by visiting the NCI Web site.

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