Chemotherapy for cancer


Strategies for Well-Being

The very thought of having chemotherapy frightens many people. But knowing what chemotherapy is, how it works and what to expect can often help calm their fears. It can also give them a better sense of control over their cancer treatment.

Chemotherapy is the use of any drug to treat any disease. But to most people, the word chemotherapy means drugs used for cancer treatment. It’s often shortened to “chemo.”

Chemotherapy is used to treat many types of cancer. For some people, it may be the only treatment they receive. But most often, they will have chemotherapy and other cancer treatments. The types of treatment that a patient needs depends on the type of cancer they have, if it has spread and where, and if they have other health problems.

Surgery and radiation therapy remove, kill or damage cancer cells in a certain area, but chemo can work throughout the whole body. This means it can kill cancer cells that have metastasized – or have spread to parts of the body – far away from the primary, original tumor.

If the doctor has recommended chemotherapy to treat cancer, it’s important to understand the goals of treatment when making treatment decisions.

There are three main goals for chemo in cancer treatment: to either cure, control or palliate – which means to make the disease less unpleasant without a cure.

Chemotherapy not only kills fast-growing cancer cells, but it also kills or slows the growth of healthy cells that grow and divide quickly. Examples are cells that line the mouth and intestines and those that cause hair to grow.

Damage to those healthy cells may cause side effects, such as mouth sores, nausea and hair loss. Side effects often get better or go away after a person has finished chemotherapy. The most common side effect is fatigue, which is feeling exhausted and worn out.

Chemotherapy is often given through a thin needle that is placed in a vein on the hand or lower arm. A nurse will put the needle in at the start of each treatment and remove it when treatment is over. IV chemotherapy may also be given through catheters or ports, sometimes with the help of a pump.

Patients may receive chemo in cycles. A cycle is a period of treatment followed by a period of rest. For instance, they might receive chemo every day for one week, followed by three weeks with no chemo. These four weeks make up one cycle. The rest period gives their body a chance to recover and build new healthy cells.

You can’t tell if chemotherapy is working based on its side effects. Some people think that severe side effects mean it is working well, or that no side effects mean it is not working. The truth is, side effects have nothing to do with how well chemotherapy is fighting cancer.

When a person is first diagnosed with cancer, they often ask about their prognosis. They might want to know whether their cancer is relatively easy or more difficult to cure. Their doctor can’t predict the future, but he/she can make an estimate based on other people’s experiences with the same cancer.

Ask the doctor why he/she is recommending chemotherapy. If they had cancer, would they treat themselves with this drug? How long have they been prescribing this treatment and to how many people? What are their expectations of this treatment? Are there other options that could produce the same results?

Cancer clinical trials – also called cancer treatment studies or research studies – test new treatments for people with cancer. These can be studies of new types of chemotherapy, other types of treatment or new ways to combine treatments. The goal of all these clinical trials is to find better ways to help people with cancer.

A patient’s doctor or nurse may suggest they take part in a clinical trial. A patient can also suggest the idea.

Before a patient agrees to be in a clinical trial, they should learn about:

• Benefits – All clinical trials offer quality cancer care. Ask how this clinical trial could help them or others. For instance, they may be one of the first people to get a new treatment or drug.

• Risks – New treatments are not always better or even as good as standard treatments. Even if this new treatment is good, it may not work well for them.

• Payment – The insurance company may or may not pay for treatment that is part of a clinical trial. Before they agree to be in a trial, they should check with their insurance company to make sure it will pay for this treatment.

If you or anyone you know has been diagnosed with cancer, it’s tough to be in those shoes right now. But it may help to know that many have made this journey and found hope by preparing for what lies ahead. There’s hope in knowing that others have managed chemo with success.

Always remember: You/They are not alone!

There are almost 14 million people in the United States today who have survived cancer. And 3 out of every 4 American families have at least one family member with cancer.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!


This column is for informational purposes only. If you have a medical condition or concern, please seek professional care from your doctor or other health professional. Glenn Ellis is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist and is available through


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