Chemotherapy is a systemic therapy that can treat cancer, slow its growth, and prevent it from spreading, depending on the cancer’s type, location, and severity. It can be given in multiple methods, but the most common are oral and intravenous (directly into the blood stream). While killing cancer cells is the main goal, there are other issues to know about when dealing with chemotherapy.
Cancer cells grow and multiply very quickly, as instructed by the abnormal DNA and RNA within the cells. Chemotherapy is designed to kill cancer cells by damaging that DNA or RNA, but because cancer cells originate from normal cells, some drugs have difficulty differentiating between the two.
In order to cause the least amount of damage to healthy tissues while still killing the cancer, chemotherapy attempts to target distinct cancer cell characteristics—specifically, the unusually fast growth cycle. Unfortunately, this trait is not completely unique to cancer cells. This results in the death of other rapidly growing cells in the body, including hair cells, skin cells, and the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, which is why hair loss, rashes, and diarrhea are such common side effects of chemo.
There are many types of chemotherapy medications, and the specific combination is intended to treat the cancer, its symptoms, and sometimes, the side effects of other treatments.
Via a temporary catheter or permanent port, intravenous (IV) chemotherapy is the easiest method for the body to absorb the medication. Doses can also be distributed over a period of time—minutes, hours, days, or weeks, depending on the drugs and protocols.
Delivered by mouth in the form of a pill or liquid, this type of therapy can be received at home. Some medications cannot be taken orally because they cannot be absorbed by the stomach, but oral chemotherapy has proven to be just as effective as IV chemotherapy when taken exactly as directed.
Each patient has their own regimen and cycle of chemotherapy treatments. A regimen is the combination of therapies prescribed, many of which are known to work well together. A cycle is the amount of time during which a regimen is given, with most ranging from two to six weeks. The side effects of chemotherapy differ depending on the method of administration, regimen, and cycle that will be discussed in detail by the care team.