Chemo - What It Is, How It Helps

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Questions about chemotherapy

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of strong drugs to treat cancer. You will often hear chemotherapy called “chemo,” (key-mo) but it’s the same treatment.

Chemo was first used to treat cancer in the 1950s. It has helped many people live full lives. The chemo drugs your doctor or nurse gives you have been tested many times. Research shows they work to help kill cancer cells.

What does chemo do?

There are more than 100 chemo drugs used today. Doctors choose certain drugs based on the kind of cancer you have and its stage (how much cancer is in your body). Chemo can be used for different reasons. Your doctor will discuss these with you before you start treatment.

Chemo may be used to:

  • 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 such as pain or blockages caused by cancer.
  • Cure cancer.

Will chemo be my only cancer treatment?

Sometimes chemo is the only cancer treatment needed. More often, it’s part of a treatment plan that can include surgery and radiation therapy (ray-dee-A-shun ther-uh-pee).

Here’s why:

  • Chemo may be used to shrink tumors before surgery or radiation.
  • It may be used after surgery or radiation to help kill any cancer cells that are left.
  • It may be used with other treatments if the cancer comes back.

How does chemo work?

The body is made up of trillions of normal healthy cells. Cancer starts when something causes changes in a normal cell. This cancer cell then grows out of control and makes more cancer cells. Each type of cancer affects the body in different ways. If cancer is not treated, it can spread and affect the rest of your body.

Your doctor may suggest chemo to cure your cancer. Sometimes the goal is to slow the growth of the cancer. Other times the goal may be to reduce symptoms or problems caused by growing tumors so that you feel better. Chemo is often used to fight cancers that have spread to other parts of the body (metastasized – meh-TAS-tuh-sized). Be sure to talk to your doctor about the goal of your treatment.

Chemo kills cancer cells. These drugs can affect normal cells, too. But most normal cells can repair themselves.

Your treatment will probably use more than one chemo drug. This is called combination chemotherapy. The drugs work together to kill more cancer cells.

How is chemo given?

Most chemo drugs are given in one of these ways:

  • Sometimes chemo is a pill or liquid. You just swallow it as your doctor prescribes. You can take it at home, but you must be careful to follow the directions.
  • Chemo can be given like a flu shot. The shots may be given in your doctor’s office, a hospital, a clinic, or at home.
  • Most often, chemo drugs are put into your blood through a tiny plastic tube called a catheter (cath-it-ur) that’s put in a vein. This is called IV (intravenousin-truh-VEEN-us) chemo.
  • Other types of chemo can be put right into the spine, chest, or belly (abdomen), or rubbed on the skin.

You may get chemo once a day, once a week, or even once a month. It depends on the type of cancer you have and the drugs you are getting. Chemo is usually given with breaks between treatment cycles. This break gives your body time to rebuild healthy new cells and helps you regain your strength. How long you get chemo depends on the type of cancer, your treatment goals, and how your body responds to the drugs.

Does chemo hurt?

There may be a little pain when a needle is used (just like getting your blood taken for lab work can sting), but the drugs themselves should cause no pain. If you do feel pain, burning, coolness, or anything new when getting your treatment, tell your doctor or nurse right away.

Can I take my other medicines while I’m taking chemo?

Some other medicines can affect your chemo. Be sure to tell your doctor or nurse about all the drugs you take. Don’t forget prescription drugs and all those you can get without a prescription. Also, tell them about vitamins, herbs, and anything else you take for your health. Make and keep a list of all the drugs you take. Keep this list up to date and share it with all your doctors.

Your doctor can tell you whether it’s OK to take these drugs while you get chemo. Once your treatments begin, be sure to check with your doctor before you start to take any new medicines, and before you stop the ones you’ve been taking.

How will I know if my chemo is working?

The doctors and nurses on your cancer team will watch the progress of your treatment by doing physical exams, blood tests, and x-rays. Ask your doctor to explain any test results to you, and how they show progress in your treatment. Keep in mind that the side effects you may feel do not mean that the treatment is – or is not – working.

How much does chemo cost?

How much chemo costs depends on a lot of things, such as which drugs are used, how you get them, and how often you get them. You can ask your doctor about cost and, if you need it, where to get help paying for chemo.

If you have health insurance, check to see if it pays for your drugs. You will want to keep your health insurance, even if you must be out of work for treatment. If you have health insurance through your job, don’t quit until you find a way to keep your insurance. See if you can take Family Medical Leave or if you are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. You can call us at 1-800-227-2345 to learn more.

If your insurance does not cover treatment, or if you have been denied payment, talk to your doctor or nurse. You may also want to talk to a patient support person at your treatment center. This person can help you look into government programs, like Medicare or Medicaid, or find other agencies that may help you. Drug assistance programs are also offered through the companies that make the drugs.

Cancer treatment can cost a lot. It’s good to know what kind of coverage you have and what help you may be able to get.

What should I ask my doctor?

Because cancer is different for each person, your chemo will be planned just for you. Work with your doctor to decide what’s best for you. Ask questions. Ask the doctor, nurses, and others on your team all the questions you need to. They know the most about chemo and how it works.

Be ready. Write down your questions ahead of time and take them with you. Don’t be afraid to say you are confused or need more information. Nothing you say will sound silly or strange to your health care team. They know you want to learn as much about chemo as you can. All patients getting chemo have questions – here are some you might want to ask:

  • What is the goal of chemo in my case?
  • How will we know if the chemo is working?
  • After chemo, will I be cured?
  • Are there other ways besides chemo to treat my cancer?
  • If chemo does not work, are there other treatments for me?
  • How will I get chemo, how often, and for how long?
  • What side effects should I watch for? Should I call you if I have any of these side effects – even at night or on a weekend? At what phone number?
  • Is there anything I should do to get ready for treatment?
  • Will I need surgery or radiation? If so, when and why?
  • Does my insurance cover chemo? If not, how will I pay for it?
  • Will I still be able to work (or go to school) during treatment?

Will I be able to work during treatment?

During chemo, many people can keep doing the things they were doing, such as going to work or school. The side effects of chemo keep some people from their normal routines. Also, some treatments may need to be given in the hospital.

If chemo affects your work or play, you may need to make some changes. One way to do this is to get your chemo late in the day or right before the weekend. This way it does not affect your daily routine as much.

Fatigue (fuh-teeg) – feeling tired – is a common side effect of chemo. This can make it hard to put in a full day’s work or do other things you want to do. You might try changing your work hours either by working part time or working different hours so that you can get the rest you need.

Federal and state laws may require your employer to allow flexible work hours during your treatment. If you’d like to know more about your rights at work, call your American Cancer Society toll free at 1-800-227-2345, or email us by clicking on the “Contact Us” button on www.cancer.org.


Last Medical Review: 03/25/2013
Last Revised: 03/25/2013