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Chemotherapy for Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors

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 like imatinib (Gleevec) that are now commonly used to treat gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs). But the term chemo is generally used to describe certain drugs that work by attacking quickly growing cells anywhere in the body, which includes cancer cells.

Before targeted therapy drugs were found to be helpful in treating GISTs, traditional chemo drugs were often tried. But GISTs rarely shrink in response to these drugs, so traditional chemo is rarely used today. People considering chemo may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

Possible side effects

Chemo drugs can cause side effects. These depend on the specific drugs used, their doses, and how long they are taken. 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 a shortage of red blood cells)

Along with the risks above, some chemo drugs can cause other side effects.

Ask your health care team what side effects you can expect based on the specific drugs you will get. Be sure to tell your doctor or nurse if you do have side effects, as there are often ways to help with them. For example, drugs can be given to help prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting.

More information about chemotherapy

For more general information about how chemotherapy is used to treat cancer, see Chemotherapy.

To learn about some of the side effects listed here and how to manage them, see Managing Cancer-related Side Effects.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Casali PG, Dei Tos AP, Gronchi A. Chapter 60: Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.

National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors Treatment. 2018. Accessed at on October 21, 2019.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Soft Tissue Sarcoma. V.4.2019. Accessed at on October 21, 2019.

Last Revised: December 1, 2019

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