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Chemotherapy (“chemo”) is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs are put into a vein with a needle. Once the drugs enter the bloodstream, they spread throughout the body.

In treating mesothelioma, these drugs may also be given right into the chest or abdomen at the site of the tumor using a small catheter (tube) placed through a small cut in the skin. Chemo drugs given this way are sometimes heated first, which may help them work better.

Chemo may be given before surgery to shrink the cancer and lower the risk of spread. It can also be given after surgery to try to try to kill any cancer cells that were left behind because they were too small to be seen.

If surgery is not an option, chemo may be given as the main treatment, either alone or along with radiation. Chemo in this case is given to slow the growth of the cancer or to relieve symptoms, but it is not likely to cure the cancer.

In most cases, more than one chemo drug is used. Doctors usually give chemo in cycles, with a rest period in between cycles to allow the body time to recover. Chemo cycles often last about 3 to 4 weeks. Chemo is often not recommended for patients in poor health, but being older should not keep a person from getting chemo.

Chemo can cause side effects. These side effects will depend on the type of drugs given, the amount taken, and how long treatment lasts. Side effects could include:

  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Increased risk of infection (from too few white blood cells)
  • Easy bleeding or bruising (from too few blood platelets)
  • Tiredness (from too few red blood cells)

Some drugs can have other side effects. Most side effects go away once treatment is over. Anyone who has problems with side effects should talk with their doctor or nurse, as there are often ways to help.

To learn more about chemo, please see our document Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Last Medical Review: 10/02/2012
Last Revised: 10/02/2012