What is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to treat various types of cancer.

How does Chemotherapy work?

Benign or non-cancerous cells grow and die in a controlled way. Cancer cells are abnormal and continue to divide forming more cells without order or control. Chemotherapy or anti-cancer drugs destroy cancer cells by killing rapidly dividing cells. Unfortunately, chemotherapy effects both cancer and healthy cells.

How is chemotherapy given?

Depending on the type of cancer and the drugs used, chemotherapy may be given in the following ways:

Intravenous - Chemotherapy given through a thin needle or catheter inserted into a vein in the hand, lower arm or through a port.

Oral - Some chemotherapy drugs are given in a pill or capsule form.

Intraperitoneal - delivers chemotherapy directly into the abdominal cavity. This requires placement of a catheter and port beneath the skin entering the abdominal cavity. The chemotherapy is given via a needle into this port which then enters the abdominal cavity.

What are the possible side effects?

The side effects of cancer treatment vary, depending on the type of treatment and the individual receiving the drugs. It is difficult to limit the effects of therapy so that only cancer cells are destroyed, therefore, healthy cells and tissues can be damaged and cause unpleasant side effects.

Nausea and vomiting may occur with some chemotherapy. Prior to chemotherapy, anti-nausea medications are given intravenously. You will also be given prescriptions for medications which may be taken after treatment if nausea and vomiting persist. Please call the oncology nurse if the nausea or vomiting is not controlled with the prescribed medication.

Hair loss (alopecia) is a common side effect of some chemotherapy drugs used to treat gynecologic cancers. Hair loss can occur on all parts of the body, not just the head. You may lose facial, underarm, leg, pubic hair, along with eyelashes and eyebrows. Hair usually starts to fall out 2-3 weeks after the first treatment. Hair loss is temporary and does grow back after chemotherapy is completed. Hair may grow back in a different color and possibly texture. Your oncology nurse can help you to deal with your hair loss and provide information about wigs, turbans, scarfs, etc.

Fatigue and anemia sometimes result from bone marrow suppression secondary to chemotherapy. The bone marrow’s ability to make red blood cells is decreased with chemotherapy. Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout your body. When there are too few red blood cells, you may experience anemia. This may make you feel weak and tired. Your blood will be checked often. If your red blood cell count is low, medication or a blood transfusion may be needed.

Infection may occur during chemotherapy because of a lower white blood cell count. White blood cells are important to help fight infections. Chemotherapy decreases the bone marrow’s ability to produce white blood cells. Your blood count will be checked often to monitor these cells. If the count is low, medication may be needed to increase the count or oral antibiotics may be prescribed to prevent or treat infection.

Bleeding may occur during chemotherapy secondary to lower platelet counts (cells that help blood clot). If you cut yourself, apply pressure and notify your doctor is the bleeding continues.

Diarrhea or constipation may occur with some chemotherapy drugs. Medications and/or changes in the diet may be needed to help correct this problem. The nurses can be helpful if these problems continue to recur.

Neuropathy or nerve pain (numbness, tingling, or burning) in the hands and feet is a side effect associated with many chemotherapy drugs. These symptoms may go away after treatment is completed but this may take up to one year. Sometimes, this can be permanent. Medications may help with symptoms. Please talk with the nurse or physician if this is a problem.

Joint aches and muscle pain may be experienced during and after treatment with some chemotherapy drugs. These symptoms usually occur 2-4 days after treatment and may last for another 2-3 days. Medication can be prescribed to lesson the pain.

Nutrition and Diet

It is important to eat a healthy diet while on chemotherapy. This can sometimes be difficult due to changes in appetite, taste, nausea, vomiting, or mouth sores. It is recommended that you try to eat a diet high in protein and carbohydrates and drink plenty of water or fluids (at least 6-8 large glasses per day). It may also be helpful to eat 5 or 6 small meals daily rather than 3 regular sized meals. If eating becomes difficult, nutrition supplements may be helpful.

*It is extremely important to communicate any of the previously listed side effects or any other problems to the oncology nurse or doctor. The oncology nurses are available to help in many ways.

Will I be able to work and do normal activities during chemotherapy?

Every patient receiving chemotherapy is different. Some are able to do normal activities and others are not. It is very important to do only what you feel you can do and not to over extend yourself or work to exhaustion.

How will I know if the chemotherapy is working?

Progress during treatment will be monitored closely by your doctor and oncology nurse. You will be monitored with frequent blood work and physical exams. X-rays and scans may be done at the discretion of the doctor.