Tell Me About Chemotherapy

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy (chemo) uses medicines that prevent cancer cells from growing and spreading. Chemotherapy medicines destroy cancer cells or prevent them from dividing. Chemo affects your whole body because it goes through your bloodstream. Chemo doesn’t refer to one treatment but many. There are a lot of different chemotherapy medicines. Some targeted therapies are also considered chemotherapy. To learn more about targeted therapies read, The Basics of Targeted Therapy.

What is chemotherapy like? What happens?

Your medical oncologist will tell you what type of chemotherapy is best for you.

Every chemo regimen or chemo round is made up of cycles. This means a period of treatment followed by a period of recovery. For example, you may get chemo one day and then have a few weeks to recover with no treatment. That would be one cycle. Several cycles make up a complete chemotherapy regimen.

Chemotherapy can be given a few different ways.

  • Intravenously (IV): As an IV infusion, the medicine comes through a thin needle (IV) in a vein in your hand or lower arm. An oncology nurse will insert the needle before each infusion and take it out afterwards.
  • Injection: As a single shot into a muscle in your leg, arm, hip, or under the skin in the fatty part of your stomach, leg or arm.
  • By mouth (Orally): As a pill or capsule. You may sometimes take oral chemo medicines at home.
  • Through a port: A port is a small disc made of plastic or metal. This is inserted in your chest during a short outpatient surgery. It is about the size of a quarter and sits right under your skin. A catheter (soft thin tube) connects the port to a large vein. A thin needle right delivers the chemo medicine into the port. You can also get your blood drawn through the port.
  • Through a catheter in your chest or arm. This is a soft thin tube that is inserted into a large vein. This is done in a short outpatient surgery. The other end of the catheter stays outside your body.

A catheter or port makes chemotherapy easier and more comfortable each time, as you don’t have to be restuck each time, like with an IV or injection. You healthcare team will teach you how to check for infection. The port or catheter will be removed when you finish treatment.

Chemotherapy is usually an outpatient procedure, but it can take one to several hours to finish as infusion. You may be asked to stay for monitoring if your immune system is low or you are experiencing other side effects.

What are the possible side effects?

Chemotherapy not only weakens and destroys cancer cells at the site of the tumor, but throughout the body as well. Chemotherapy usually affects all fast-growing cells. Unfortunately, this means that chemo can unintentionally harm the development of normal cells like your hair, nails, mouth, and digestive tract.

The side effects chemo causes depend on the type of chemotherapy you receive and how many cycles you receive. The most common side effects of chemo are:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue or tiredness
  • Confusion, forgetfulness (“chemo brain”)
  • Decreased blood counts, sometimes with bruising, bleeding, or infection
  • Sores inside your mouth
  • Numbness in your hands and feet
  • Diarrhea
  • Increased urgency to have a bowel movement or urinate

If you experience side effects, call your doctor right away. It is better to address side effects right away, and there are numerous drugs available to help manage side effects.

What can I do to prepare?

Chemotherapy can drain most of your energy. There are some things you should take care of before you start chemo:

  • Get your teeth cleaned and get a dental check-up. Chemo weakens your immune system, so you may be more vulnerable to infections caused by bacteria that are dislodged during teeth cleaning.
  • Get any heart tests (like an EKG) that your doctor recommends.
  • If you’re a woman, get a Pap smear, if you’re overdue. Chemo can alter the results of your Pap smear, so get one beforehand.
  • Organize your rides to treatment. Ask a friend or family member to take you.
  • Find someone to help around the house. Line up someone to help with your daily chores such as cleaning, grocery shopping, and cooking.
  • Join a support group or talk to a survivor.
  • Talk to registered dietitian about making the best food choices before and during treatment. To set up a time to speak with a PearlPoint registered dietitian call (877) 467-1936 X101 or email guidance@pearlpoint.org.
  • Tell your doctor all the vitamins, supplements, over-the-counter and prescription medicines you take.
  • Pack a bag to take with you on treatment days. Include books, cards, music players, a journal and pens, or anything else to pass the time. Choose some healthy snacks from our list of Portable Snacks and Treats. You may also want to take a blanket, jacket, or warm socks.
  • Talk to your doctor about hair loss. If you plan to wear a wig, go ahead and get it so you can match it to your hair color and style. You may also want to stock up on scarves and hats to keep your head warm. PearlPoint can help you locate resources in your area. Contact us at guidance@pearlpoint.org.
  • Buy unscented soap, shampoo, and detergent. Chemo can make you sensitive to some smells.

If you need assistance finishing this list, such as finding a ride or support group, contact client services at PearlPoint Cancer support at (877) 467-1936 X101 or guidance@pearlpoint.org.