Chemotherapy is a treatment used to kill cancer cells. It involves taking medications that are toxic to fast-growing cells like cancer cells.
Reasons for Procedure
Chemotherapy is used to treat cancer. The goal is to reduce the number of cancer cells or decrease the size of tumors.
Many types of chemotherapy drugs not only damage the cancer cells but can also damage some of your normal cells. This can create side effects. Side effects will vary between chemotherapy treatments. Your doctor will review a list of possible side effects for your treatment type. Some side effects of chemotherapy include:
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Appetite loss
- Hair loss
- Low red blood cell count — anemia
- Weakened immune system and increased infections
- Easy bruising and/or bleeding
- Mouth sores
- Numbness and tingling sensation in the hands and/or feet, or weakness due to nerve damage
- Kidney damage
- Damage to the heart muscle
- Interruption of the menstrual period
You and your doctor will talk about options to help relieve some of these side effects.
What to Expect
Prior to Procedure
You may be asked to take some pre-medications such as:
- Allergy medications, such as an anti-histamine
- Anti-nausea medications
Description of the Procedure
Your doctor will talk to you about the best way to deliver the medication(s). Chemotherapy drugs may be given by:
- Injection into a muscle or vein (IV)
- Catheter tube into the bladder, abdomen, chest cavity, brain, spinal cord, or liver
- Application to the skin
Chemotherapy Through Cardiovascular System
How Long Will It Take?
How long it will take depends on the method used, the number of medications, and the amount of each medication. A session may be as brief as the time it takes to swallow a pill. It could also take several hours or last overnight. Some types of chemotherapy can be given as a continuous infusion through a portable pump.
Will It Hurt?
The treatment may cause a number of uncomfortable side effects. The delivery of the chemotherapy usually does not hurt.
Average Hospital Stay
Most often, you can leave after the medication is delivered. Some chemotherapy treatments will require a stay in the hospital. This may be about 2-3 days.
Your doctor may choose to keep you in the hospital if you have complications, such as severe vomiting.
At the Hospital
You may be given any of the following:
- Medications to take at home, such as anti-nausea medication
- Injections of an immune-system or blood cell boosting drug
- Other drugs, including steroids, allergy medications, sedatives, and antibiotics
When you return home, do the following to help ensure a smooth recovery:
- Get a lot of sleep.
- Try to do some physical activity each day. Exercise can help to reduce fatigue.
- Try to eat a healthy diet.
- Drink lots of fluids to avoid dehydration.
- Try to avoid people with diseases that can be spread easily, including children. Chemotherapy will likely weaken your immune system. Viral illnesses, such as the cold or flu, can have serious effects.
- Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions.
Your doctor may order any of the following tests to check the progress of your treatment:
Call Your Doctor
After you leave the hospital, contact your doctor if any of the following occur:
- Signs of infection, including fever and chills
- Sores in your mouth, throat, or lips
- White patches in your mouth
- Difficulty/pain with swallowing
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Vomiting that prevents you from holding down fluids
- Blood in your vomit
- Easy bruising
- Nosebleeds, bleeding gums, new vaginal bleeding
- Blood in your urine or stool
- Burning or frequency of urination
- Chest pain
- Severe weakness
- Shortness of breath, trouble breathing, or cough
- Calf pain, swelling, or redness in the legs or feet
- Abnormal vaginal discharge, itching, or odor
- New pain or pain that you cannot control with the medication you were given
- Numbness, tingling, or pain in your extremities
- Joint pain, stiffness, rash, or other new symptoms
- Redness, swelling, increasing pain, excessive bleeding, or a pimple at the site of your IV
- Headache, stiff neck
- Hearing or vision changes
- Ringing in your ears
- Exposure to someone with an infectious illness, including chickenpox
- Weight gain or loss of 10 pounds or more
In case of an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
Canadian Cancer Society
Cancer Care Ontario
Chemotherapy and you. National Institutes of Health website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/chemotherapy-and-you. Accessed September 11, 2014.
Understanding chemotherapy. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/chemo-side-effects/understandingchemo. Updated August 2008. Accessed September 11, 2014.
10/26/2009 DynaMed Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Adamsen L, Quist M, Andersen C, et al. Effect of a multimodal high intensity exercise intervention in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy: randomised controlled trial. BMJ. 2009;339:b3410.
Last reviewed August 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.