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Chemotherapy treats cancer with powerful drugs that can destroy cancer cells, control their growth and relieve pain symptoms by interfering with cell division. The treatment of chemotherapy works by stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, which can grow and divide quickly. Chemotherapy may involve one drug, or a combination of two or more drugs, depending on the type of cancer, its stage and its rate of progression. Chemotherapy can be used in combination with other treatments such as surgery or radiation, to make sure all cancer cells have been eliminated.

Depending on your type of cancer and how advanced it is, chemotherapy can:

  • Destroy cancer cells to the point that the doctor can no longer detect them in the patient’s body and they will not grow back
  • Keep cancer from spreading or slows its growth
  • Ease cancer symptoms by shrinking tumors that are causing pain or pressure
  • Sometimes, chemotherapy is the only cancer treatment used. But more often, a patient will get chemotherapy along with surgery, radiation therapy or biological therapy. For instance, chemotherapy can make a tumor smaller before surgery, or destroy cancer cells that may remain after surgery or radiation therapy.

Your doctor will decide which chemotherapy drugs to use based on:

  • The type of cancer
  • Whether the patient has had chemotherapy before
  • Whether other health problems, such as diabetes or heart disease, exist

Chemotherapy is administered in three ways:

  • IV Infusions
  • By Mouth (Oral Chemotherapy)
  • Injections

IV Infusions

Intravenous (IV) is by far the most common method. A needle is inserted into a vein and attached with tubing to a plastic bag holding the chemotherapy drugs. The needle is taken out at the end of each treatment.

For some patients who undergo several chemotherapy sessions, a catheter, another type of plastic tubing, is inserted into one of the large veins and left in place during the entire chemotherapy regimen. Some patients have a metal or plastic disc known as a "port" implanted under the skin, to serve as an IV connection device.

IV bags are attached to a tall metal stand with wheels, providing some mobility. Some patients wear a small pump outside the body, with minimal interference to their normal routine. Other patients may have a drug pump surgically inserted into their body.

By Mouth (Oral Chemotherapy)

Oral chemotherapy drugs are taken by mouth, either in pill or liquid form.


Injections are administered into the muscle, under the skin or directly into a cancer lesion, depending on the type or location of the cancer.

Side effects vary from patient to patient and with the type of chemotherapy drugs used. The good news is that there are therapies to help patients cope with some side effects, and lost hair does grow back, although sometimes in a different color or texture.

The most common side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • Temporary hair loss
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Pain
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Depression
  • Increased sun sensitivity
  • Numbness or weakness in the hands and feet