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Chemotherapy is treating cancerous cells with anti-cancer drugs. It usually involves one or more drugs and can be used in combination with other modalities such as surgery and radiation.

A medical oncologist may choose chemotherapy to affect cancers in one of three ways:

  • Eliminate the cancer and keep it from returning
  • Prevent the cancer from spreading if complete elimination of the cancer proves impractical
  • Relieve symptoms and enhance quality of life even when the cancer cannot be completely controlled or cured

How does chemotherapy work?

Chemotherapy kills rapidly dividing cancer cells in a variety of ways, depending on the drug. Each drug has a different way of working and is effective at a specific time in the life cycle of the cell it targets. For example, some chemotherapy drugs work by:

  • damaging DNA
  • preventing cells from dividing
  • disrupting cellular metabolism or other crucial functions

How is chemotherapy delivered?

There are a variety of techniques used to deliver chemotherapy, depending on which treatment the doctor prescribes. Chemotherapy may consist of a single drug or a combination of drugs delivered in cycles followed by a period of rest.

Chemotherapy can be administered orally in the form of a pill or injected into a vein (intravenous), into a body cavity (such as the bladder), into a muscle (intramuscular), or into the spinal fluid (intrathecal). Currently, most chemotherapy is administered intravenously. In some cases, it may be beneficial to administer IV chemotherapy through a venous access device (VAD), which is inserted into a major vein in the body and can remain in place for a long period of time. Not every chemotherapy patient requires a VAD. However, for those undergoing frequent treatment, blood tests, and nutritional support, a VAD reduces the number of needle sticks and the associated discomfort.

How often will a patient receive chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy drugs are typically given in cycles. The cycle consists of the days the drugs is administered followed by a rest and recovery period. A cycle usually lasts one to four weeks and is then repeated, which means a treatment is administered every one to four weeks. Each course of chemotherapy is different, but generally consists of four to six cycles. The actual administration of some chemotherapy drugs may take only seconds or minutes, while others may take hours or even days.

What are the most common side effects?

All chemotherapy is associated with a wide variety of side effects. However, some side effects occur more frequently than others. Severity also depends on a variety of factors, including the type of cancer, the type of chemotherapy drug or regimen, physical condition, age, and others. When cancer treatments are evaluated, side effects are measured and reported as part of the treatment evaluation.

The following are the most common side effects: anemia, depression, fatigue, hair loss, infection/fever, low blood counts, mouth sores, nausea and vomiting, neutropenia, pain, thrombocytopenia.

Will I lose my hair because of my chemotherapy?

Hair loss occurs with some, but not all chemotherapy drugs. The amount of hair loss varies from a slight thinning to complete baldness and affects the scalp, eyelashes and eyebrows, legs, armpits, and pubic area.

Hair loss will typically begin two or three weeks after your first treatment. The amount of hair you lose will depend on the type of chemotherapy drug you are taking. Hair typically begins to grow back approximately two to three weeks after treatment is finished. The hair may grow back differently. Color or texture (curly or straight) may be different.

Remember, that hair loss associated with chemotherapy is temporary, and the hair will grow back. In the meantime, here are a few tips to help you cope with hair loss:

  • You may wish to cut your hair before it starts falling out. The experience of losing the hair is sometimes worse than dealing with it once it's gone. If you expect to lose all or a lot of your hair, cutting it first may be easier to cope with.
  • Try hats or head scarves; these are good alternatives or complements to a wig.
  • Remember to cover your head or use sunscreen on your scalp. Skin that has been covered with hair may be particularly sensitive to UV rays.
  • Treat your new hair gently once it grows back. Avoid chemicals, bleach, peroxide, and coloring.

Source: Chemotherapy, St. Luke's Medical Center advertorial