Chemotherapy for stomach cancer
Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Usually the drugs are given into a vein or taken by mouth as pills. Once the drugs enter the bloodstream, they go throughout the body. Chemo is useful in treating cancer that has spread beyond where it started.
Chemo can be given before surgery. It may shrink the tumor and make it easier to take it out and help patients live longer. For some stages of stomach cancer, this is one of the standard treatment options.
Chemo may also be given after surgery. It is used to kill any groups of cancer cells that may have been left behind but are too small to be seen. The goal is to keep the cancer from coming back. For stomach cancer, chemo is often given along with radiation after surgery.
Chemo may also be used as the main treatment for stomach cancer that has spread to distant organs. It may help relieve symptoms for some patients, especially those with spread to other parts of the body. It may also help some patients live longer.
Doctors give chemo in cycles, with each treatment followed by a rest period to allow the body time to recover. As a rule, each cycle lasts for a few weeks.
A number of chemo drugs can be used to treat stomach cancer. Based on the situation, these drugs may be used alone or combined with other drugs.
Side effects of chemo
While chemo drugs kill cancer cells, they also damage some normal cells, and this causes side effects. The side effects depend on the type of drugs used, the amount given, and the length of treatment. The following are some of the most common short-term side effects:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Hair loss
- Mouth sores
- A higher risk of infection (from a shortage of white blood cells)
- Bruising or bleeding after minor cuts or bumps (from a shortage of blood platelets)
- Fatigue (feeling very tired, even after resting), from a shortage of red blood cells
Most of these side effects go away when treatment is over. For instance, hair will usually grow back after treatment ends.
Certain chemo drugs can cause specific side effects like nerve damage (neuropathy) or heart damage. You should be told about each drug you are getting and you should talk to your doctor about side effects before you start treatment.
If you do have side effects, talk with your cancer care team because there are often ways to lessen these problems. For example, you can be given drugs to prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting.
To learn more about chemotherapy, you can read our document Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families online, or call us for a free copy.
Last Medical Review: 03/18/2013
Last Revised: 02/11/2014