December 09, 2019
10 things to know about chemotherapy
BY Cynthia DeMarco
Starting chemotherapy for the first time? If you are new to this common cancer treatment, you're probably wondering how chemotherapy works, if you will lose your hair or even if chemotherapy hurts.
We spoke with Mariela Blum-Murphy, M.D., to learn more. Here’s what she had to say.
What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is a group of medications that can shrink or destroy cancer cells.
Chemotherapy is used in a variety of ways. It may be given to rid the body of cancer, to shrink cancer so that surgery can be performed, or to control the disease and prolong someone’s life as long as possible.
How does chemotherapy work?
There are multiple types of chemotherapy, and each kind works a bit differently. In general, chemotherapy attacks rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells. Chemotherapy alters a cancer cell’s ability to grow or replicate itself. It can cause the cancer cell to die by not functioning properly or stop it from spreading by interfering with its ability to reproduce.
How are chemotherapy drugs usually given?
Most chemotherapy drugs are given through an IV, but some are injected into muscle, under the skin or directly into the spinal fluid. Other chemotherapy drugs can be swallowed in pill form.
Chemotherapy is often given in combination with other chemotherapy drugs or with other treatments, such as targeted therapy, radiation therapy or immunotherapy.
Does chemotherapy hurt?
IV chemotherapy should not cause any pain while being administered. If you experience pain, contact the nurse taking care of you to check your IV line. An exception would be if there is a leak and the drug gets into surrounding tissues.
What are the most common side effects of chemotherapy?
Side effects depend on the type of chemotherapy. The most common ones are mouth sores, diarrhea, nausea, fatigue and those caused by bone marrow suppression, such as a decrease in white blood cell count (neutropenia).
Am I going to lose my hair?
Not necessarily. Some chemotherapy drugs do cause hair loss. Others may cause only hair thinning and some may not cause any hair loss. The reason hair loss sometimes happens is that chemotherapy drugs affect rapidly dividing cells. This describes not only cancer cells, but also those found in the hair follicles, mouth and gastrointestinal tract. That is why some patients develop mouth sores, nausea, and diarrhea, too.
Talk to your doctor before starting treatment to find out if and when you are likely to lose your hair.
Am I going to feel sick all the time?
Not necessarily. We have very good medications now to control many of the side effects caused by chemotherapy, such as nausea and vomiting. Our goal is not to make you sick with treatment, but to make you feel better.
Will I be able to have children?
Some chemotherapy drugs and other cancer treatments can affect fertility in both male and female patients. If you are of childbearing age, it’s important to talk to your doctor about options for preserving fertility before starting treatment.
Patients are often so focused on treating the cancer right away that they do not think of fertility, but consulting a fertility specialist before starting treatment allows you to explore your options more fully.
How long will I need chemotherapy?
That depends on the type of cancer you have, how advanced it is and your treatment goal. If the goal is to cure you, you will probably only receive chemotherapy for a limited time. If the goal is to keep you alive, it might be longer.
Are there any special precautions I should take to protect others while I’m receiving chemotherapy?
It is strongly recommended that patients use a barrier form of birth control, such as condoms, to prevent conception during chemotherapy. You may need to continue doing this for some time after cancer treatment ends. Talk to your doctor to find out if this applies to you.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
TopicsHair Loss Chemotherapy
Our goal is not to make you sick with treatment, but to make you feel better.
Mariela Blum-Murphy, M.D.