What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy are medicines that are often used to treat cancer. There are many different types of chemotherapy and these medicines work in a variety of ways to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy agents are often medicines that kill rapidly growing cells. Cancer cells often grow very fast, making them highly susceptible to killing by chemotherapy. Combinations of different chemotherapy medications can be used throughout the treatment course in an attempt to eliminate cancer cells. Depending on the medication, chemotherapy can be given through your vein, by mouth, or given directly into the spinal column when needed.
When is chemotherapy given?
Chemotherapy is used to kill cancer cells. They can be used in combination with other forms of therapy such as radiation, surgery, or bone marrow transplant. Chemotherapy is usually given with several medications over set periods of time called “cycles”. A cycle is usually anywhere from 14 to 28 days depending on your treatment plan. Your oncologist will review with you each medication that is given, its side effects, how often it is given and what it aims to accomplish.
What are the side effects of chemotherapy?
Like any other medications chemotherapy, although work well to kill cancer cells, can cause side effects. Each medication in your chemotherapy regimen often has specific side effects. Not everyone experiences all of the potential side effects, but there are a few side effects that are common. Since chemotherapy targets rapidly growing cells, most common side effects stem from this fact. As cells of the hair follicles, skin, nails, and the lining of the gastrointestinal tract including the gut and the mouth, patients may experience hair loss or thinning of the hair. There may also be color changes to the skin and nails. Similarly, patients commonly experience nausea, vomiting and sores in the mouth as a result of the chemotherapy.
It is important to know that each medicine in the chemotherapy regimen can result in a unique side effect profile. Some carry effects that may appear years later. Therefore, the oncologist will conduct a battery of tests before starting chemotherapy, during the treatment, and continue to monitor these tests even after completion of the chemotherapy.
Dr. Hilda Ding, M.D., Pediatric Heme/Onc Fellow, Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital
Dr. Alex Huang, M.D., Ph.D. Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine