What Is Chemo?

Chemo is an umbrella term for cancer-killing medications that travel through the body and zap cancer cells. One snag is that chemo meds can’t tell the difference between fast-growing cancer cells and fast-growing body cells, such as hair follicles or cells lining the digestive system. That’s why chemo can cause side effects (more on that later). Thankfully, normal cells—unlike most cancer cells—generally bounce back after treatment.

Chemo can be used on its own or in combination with other treatments, such as surgery and radiation. There are three common scenarios:

  1. Chemo may be given before surgery or radiation. This is called neoadjuvant therapy, and the goal is to shrink tumors so surgeons can remove them more easily or radiation treatments can be made more effective. 
  2. Chemo is often done after surgery. This is called adjuvant (add-on) therapy, and the goal is to destroy any cancer cells that may have been left behind, even though we can’t detect them.
  3. Chemo may also be given at the same time as radiation. This is done in special cases where a double-whammy treatment is considered the best option.

For advanced cancer, chemo can be used to ease symptoms, prolong survival and improve a person’s quality of life. And in some cases of advanced cancer, chemo can still be curative—just think of Lance Armstrong.

What does chemo look and feel like?
Chemo medications are typically delivered by intravenous (IV) infusion. Your infusion could take from one to five hours, depending on your specific combination of drugs and their doses.

In many cases, chemo is administered through a small needle inserted in a vein in the hand or lower arm. To protect your veins from the stress of repeated needle sticks, you can request an injection port—a small round disc made of plastic or metal that’s surgically inserted under the skin. Ports make it less likely that chemo meds will leak onto you, causing itching, redness and other skin problems. Having a port also means you won’t feel like a pincushion!

During and after treatment, you’ll be monitored for allergic reactions. So let your oncology nurse know if you feel flushed, lightheaded or short of breath, or if you feel any pain, a burning sensation or itchiness at any point.

Chemo can also be given orally. Chemo taken by mouth is as strong as other forms and works just as well. It will be up to you (the person undergoing chemo) or your caregiver to ensure that you follow your prescribed treatment schedule.

  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.?