Top 10 Chemo Questions Answered

By Marisa Cohen
Reviewed by Lillie Shockney, RN, BS, MAS; Theodore Tsangaris, MD; and Pat Whitworth, MD, FACS

Forget what you may have heard about chemo. It’s come a long way since it was first introduced more than half a century ago. Read on for the latest on these powerful medications.

1. How does chemotherapy work?
It kills cancer cells, reduces the size of tumors and relieves symptoms of the disease. In most cases, a cocktail of two or more medications is used, although certain cancers can be treated with a single drug. While chemo also kills some healthy cells, most of those cells eventually repair themselves.

2. How is it given?
Occasionally, chemo is taken in the form of a pill, liquid or injection (or, in the case of some skin cancers, by topical cream). However, in most cases it’s given intravenously through a needle inserted into a vein in your hand or lower arm, a procedure known as an infusion. If you’d like to make needle sticks less painful, ask your doctor about a catheter (a thin tube) with a port.

3. How frequently will I need it? 
Depending on the type and stage of your cancer and the medications in your regimen, it can be once a day, once a week, once every 10 days or even once a month. Your body will have enough time to rest and recover.

4. Will it make me feel sick?
Many people say they feel fine, and even if you should experience side effects, they can be alleviated with medication. “We have very good antinausea drugs now,” says Sanjay Goel, MD, an oncologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. Other side effects include fatigue or infection brought on by a low white blood cell count. Alert your doctor if you have a fever over 100.5°, vomiting or diarrhea. Your doctor can treat such symptoms to help you stay on course.

5. Will I lose all my hair?
Not necessarily, although many medications do cause hair to thin or fall out. That includes eyebrows and pubic hair.

6. Will I be able to eat?
Yes. Aim for small, frequent meals and high-protein snacks such as peanut butter crackers, cheese and milk shakes. Stay hydrated with plenty of water and juice.  

7. What if I’m too tired to get chemo?
It’s important to stay on the schedule your doctor has prescribed, says Dr. Goel. If you skip a treatment, cancer cells could regrow, and your chances of remission will drop, he says. Certain medications can treat your fatigue and other side effects.

8. If I have infusions, how long will each one last?
A session can last a few hours or the entire day, says Dr. Goel.

9. Can I work during chemo?
Yes. If you’re tired, talk to your boss about taking time off after a session. 

10. Will I feel better as soon as my course is over?
Yes. In fact, many side effects—nausea, loss of appetite and hair loss—will vanish a few weeks after your last session.  

Published March 2014

  Overview

What Is Chemo?
Common Cancer Names
Understanding Cancerspeak
Clinical Trials: Are They Right for You?

More Chemo Basics

Stay on Schedule With Chemo
Top 10 Chemo Questions Answered
Top 5 Cancer Myths Busted!
What's Your Chemo I.Q.?