Chemotherapy for Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor

Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of drugs to treat cancer. Often, these drugs are injected into a vein (IV) or given by mouth. They enter the bloodstream and reach throughout the body, making this treatment potentially useful for cancers that have spread beyond the organ they started in.

Any drug used to treat cancer can be considered chemo – even the targeted therapy drugs discussed earlier. But the term chemo is often used to describe certain drugs that work by attacking quickly growing cells anywhere in the body, which includes cancer cells. Before targeted therapy drugs like imatinib (Gleevec) were found to be helpful in treating gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs), traditional chemo drugs were used. GISTs rarely shrank in response to these drugs, so this type of treatment is rarely used now that targeted drugs are available. Because traditional chemo has not worked well against GISTs, no standard chemo regimens are recommended. Patients considering chemo may want to consider participating in a clinical trial.

Chemo drugs attack cells that are dividing quickly, which is why they work against cancer cells. But other cells in the body, such as those in the bone marrow (where new blood cells are made), the lining of the mouth and intestines, and the hair follicles, also divide quickly. These cells can also be affected by chemo, which can lead to side effects. Side effects depend on the specific drugs used, their dose, and the length of treatment. Common side effects of chemo include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mouth sores
  • Diarrhea
  • Hair loss
  • An increased chance of infection (from a shortage of white blood cells)
  • Problems with bleeding or bruising (from a shortage of blood platelets)
  • Fatigue or shortness of breath (from low red blood cell counts)

Along with the risks above, some chemo drugs can cause other side effects. Most side effects improve once treatment is stopped, but some can last a long time. Let your health care team know if you have side effects, so they can be treated. There are ways to prevent or treat many of the side effects of chemotherapy. For example, many drugs can help prevent or treat nausea and vomiting.

For more information about chemotherapy, see A Guide to Chemotherapy.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: April 4, 2014 Last Revised: February 8, 2016

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