Chemotherapy is the use of medications to treat cancer. Depending on the type of cancer and its stage, the four main goals of chemotherapy are: to cure cancer, to keep cancer from spreading, to slow the growth of cancer, and to relieve cancer symptoms.
Chemotherapy helps destroy cancer cells by stopping them from growing and multiplying. It may be used along with radiation therapy, surgery, or both. More than one chemotherapy drug may be given at a time because some drugs work better together than alone. Your doctor will recommend the medications and dosage schedule appropriate for you. The decision depends on the kind of cancer you have, whether or not it has spread (metastasized) from its original site, the extent of its growth, and your general health.
How Chemotherapy Is Given
Chemotherapy can be given in different ways. Some common methods include intravenous, oral, intramuscular, and intrathecal.
The intravenous route (IV) is a common way to put medicine directly into a vein. A small needle is inserted into one of the veins in the lower arm. Sometimes a syringe is used to push the chemotherapy through the tubing. This is called an IV push medication. When you receive chemotherapy through an IV, it's important to tell your nurse right away if there is any redness, burning, or discomfort in the IV area.
A more permanent type of catheter may be recommended to avoid repeated needle sticks into the vein. These permanent catheters are called central venous catheters or implanted ports. Central venous catheters are surgically inserted into one of the large central veins in the chest and stay in place until the therapy is completed. Chemotherapy, blood and IV fluids can be given through this catheter, and blood for lab tests can be drawn from this site. The tube will be capped and covered by a dressing, and your nurse will teach you how to care for the catheter to avoid infection.
An implanted port is round in shape and usually surgically inserted under the skin surface on the chest wall between the neck and shoulder or in the lower arm. To use the port, the nurse will insert a needle through the top skin surface to access the port. Chemotherapy, blood, and IV fluids can be given through this port, and blood can be drawn from the port. Home care is usually required only at initial insertion.
Other chemotherapy delivery methods include:
- Oral: This includes pills, capsules, or liquid taken by mouth.
- Intramuscular: An injection into the muscle.
- Intrathecal: Injecting chemotherapy medication into the spinal fluid through a spinal tap, because certain types of cancer have a tendency to spread to the central nervous system.
Treatment Length and Frequency
You may be treated in your doctor’s office, in the hospital, receive pills to take on a specific schedule at home, or receive drugs at home via an implanted pump. Your dosage schedule may last from a few weeks up to a year, with varying cycle frequency (once a week, once a month, or other intervals). If you are going to be treated as a hospital inpatient, we have specialized facilities and nurses to take care of you.
Feel free to bring reading materials or a hand-held electronic entertainment device to help pass the time while you are receiving treatment at the doctor’s office or as an outpatient at the hospital. Treatments are followed by rest cycles to give your body time to build healthy new cells and regain strength.
Your doctor may provide a list of instructions for care between chemotherapy cycles. Follow them carefully and stay focused on having a good outcome from treatment.
Read more answers to our patient’s Commonly Asked Questions about chemotherapy.