What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy or chemo is a treatment that kills cancer cells with drugs. It is used to treat many types of cancer. It can be used to cure cancer, lower the chances that it will come back or stop or slow down the cancer’s growth. It can also be used to relieve cancer symptoms by shrinking tumors that cause pain or other problems. Some people will only have chemo, but most of the time it is used along with other cancer treatments.

Chemo is given in many different forms and ways:

  • By mouth in a pill, capsule or liquid.
  • Through an IV.
  • As a shot into certain targeted spots in the body, like an artery or the cavity that hold the intestines.
  • As a cream.
  • Via a catheter or a port, which are tools put inside the body that deliver chemo on an ongoing basis. A pump attached to both help control how much and how fast chemo is delivered to the body.

There are also many different chemo drugs. The type you receive depends on:

  • The kind of cancer you have and how advanced it is.
  • Whether or not you have had chemo before.
  • Your overall health or if you have conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.

How can I prepare?

Chemo can make you very tired. You may also feel unwell. Planning tips include:

  • Ask someone to drive you to and from your appointment.
  • Carve out time to rest on the day of and the day after chemo.
  • Ask people to help you with meals and childcare the day of and at least one day after chemo.

How long will chemotherapy take?

This depends on the type of chemo you are getting. Treatment schedules vary greatly. You may need to stay in a hospital or it may be an outpatient appointment. Sometimes, a tool will be inserted into your body to deliver chemo on an ongoing basis. Or, you may receive chemo in cycles or periods of treatment followed by rest. You might have chemo every day for one week and then three weeks with no treatment. These four weeks together are one cycle.

How do I pass the time while getting chemotherapy? (What to bring?)

There are many things you can bring to help pass the time and keep you comfortable: 

  • Reading materials
  • Music and movies
  • Comfortable clothes
  • Hobby materials
  • Games
  • Drinks and snacks

How do I get to my appointment?

Make arrangements for someone to drive you to and from your appointment.

Am I going to lose my hair from chemotherapy? When?

Hair loss can be a side effect of chemo, but it does not always happen. If it does happen, it often starts within two weeks of treatment and gets worse one to two months after starting therapy. Often hair will start to grow back before treatment ends. Ask your doctor about the type of chemo you are getting if this may happen and when.

Will I get nauseous?

Nausea is a common side effect, but it does not happen to everyone.

What are the Side effects of chemotherapy?

The most common side effect is fatigue. It will help to plan ahead by asking someone to drive you to chemo and help out at home while you recover. 

Chemo kills not only cancer cells that grow quickly, but also healthy cells that grow and divide quickly. Examples of cells that grow quickly include those that line the mouth and intestines and those that cause hair growth. As a result, side effects can include mouth sores, nausea and hair loss. Once chemo is finished, side effects often improve or go away. Sometimes symptoms can linger, so it is important to talk to your doctor about how you are feeling.

Everyone responds differently to chemo. How you feel depends on a few factors:

  • The type of chemo
  • The dose of chemo
  • Which kind of cancer you have
  • How advanced your cancer is
  • Your overall health before chemo

There is no way to predict how you will feel, but you can talk to your doctor about how to manage side effects. This includes any special diet that may help you feel better. You may also be given medication to manage side effects during chemo.

What other questions should I ask about chemotherapy?

Other planning questions you can ask your doctor include: 

  • Is this going to work?
  • What happens after chemo?