A Guide to Chemotherapy

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Learning about chemotherapy treatment

What is chemotherapy and how does it work?

Chemotherapy is the use of medicines or drugs to treat a disease, such as cancer. Many times this treatment is just called chemo. Surgery and radiation therapy remove, kill, or damage cancer cells in a certain area, but chemo can work throughout the whole body. Chemo can kill cancer cells that have metastasized (meh-TAS-tuh-sized) or spread to parts of the body far away from the primary (original) tumor.

More than 100 chemo drugs are used in many combinations. A single chemo drug can be used to treat cancer, but often multiple drugs are used in a certain order or in certain combinations (called combination chemotherapy). Multiple drugs with different actions can work together to kill more cancer cells. This can also reduce the chance that the cancer may become resistant to any one chemo drug.

You and your doctor will decide what drug or combination of drugs you will get. Your doctor will choose the doses, how the drugs will be given, and how often and how long you’ll get treatment. All of these decisions will depend on the type of cancer, where it is, how big it is, and how it affects your normal body functions and overall health.

What is the goal of chemo?

Depending on the type of cancer, its stage (how far it has spread), and where you are in the treatment process, chemo can be used to:

  • Cure the cancer.
  • Keep the cancer from spreading.
  • Slow the cancer’s growth.
  • Kill cancer cells that may have spread to other parts of the body.
  • Relieve symptoms caused by cancer.

Your doctor will talk to you about the goal of your chemo before you start treatment.

Will chemo be my only treatment for cancer?

Sometimes chemo is the only treatment you need. More often, chemo is used along with surgery or radiation therapy or both. Here’s why:

  • Chemo may be used to shrink a tumor before surgery or radiation therapy.
  • It may be used after surgery or radiation therapy to help kill any remaining cancer cells.
  • It may be used with other treatments if your cancer comes back.

When chemo is given after surgery to kill any cancer cells that may still be present, it’s called adjuvant therapy.

When chemo is used to shrink a tumor before surgery or radiation therapy, it’s called neoadjuvant therapy.


Last Medical Review: 08/11/2014
Last Revised: 08/24/2014