A crash course in chemotherapy

Understanding the basics of your upcoming cancer treatment will make it less daunting.

We’ve all heard of it. If you know cancer, you may have experienced it. But for some people, chemotherapy is something they know little about. The Do You Know Cancer team wanted to provide a post highlighting the ins and outs of chemo, for those who know cancer, as well as for those who know a loved one or friend who may be undergoing chemo. Think how important it will be to your friend when you can talk with them about their chemotherapy treatment – being able to understand what a person with cancer is going through often makes a world of difference.

Chemotherapy is loosely defined as any type of medicine given to a patient suffering from cancer, with the goal of destroying cancerous cells. It was first used in the fifties, and today, there are over 100 chemotherapy drugs. The type of chemo drug administered depends on the type of cancer a person has and what stage their cancer is in. Oncologist use chemo drugs to prevent cancer from spreading to other parts of the body and/or to slow the growth of a cancerous tumor. In some cases, chemotherapy can cure a person’s cancer. This, of course, depends on the type of cancer and how early it was treated.

In some cases, a person who knows cancer may only undergo chemotherapy, and not other anticancer treatments such as radiation. In certain instances, however, chemo may be a prelude to other therapies – for example, a doctor may try administering chemo to shrink a patient’s tumor prior to radiation or surgery. It may also be utilized after surgery or radiation, as a means of killing off any cancerous cells that are still present. Chemotherapy is probably the anticancer therapy used most often by oncologists. This is because the right combination of chemo drugs can be extremely successful.

Chemo is typically administered into a patient’s veins, through an IV. This is called Intravenous Chemotherapy. Some forms of chemo are administered into the chest, spine, or abdomen. Some patients with advanced cancer have what’s known as a “port” [short for Portcath] installed in their body, so that doctors do not have to insert a needle each time the patient must receive chemo. A port makes receiving chemo easier on the patient, although they may experience some discomfort following insertion of their port. Delivery of chemo through a port is said to be more efficient and less harmful to the body, as it delivers the drugs via the circulatory system – this means that chemo drugs do not have to pass through precious tissue, like the muscle and skin [these can be damaged by toxic chemo].

Some chemotherapy is available in pill form. Patients who receive chemo in this way can often take the pills at home, with limited interruption to their daily routine.

The frequency of chemo treatments varies. Some people may receive daily chemo for an extended period of time if their cancer is particularly aggressive and is thought to be spreading. Some people may only receive chemo once a week, or once per month. It depends on the type of cancer and the stage that the cancer is in. Patients receive a break between chemo sessions, to give their body time to build new, healthy cells. This break is a much-needed respite, as it allows the patient some time to recover from the often painful and annoying side effects of chemotherapy. A patient may have to undergo multiple sessions of chemotherapy [called "rounds" of chemo] if their cancer fails to respond to the first treatment.

The process of administering chemo is not particularly painful, as it is just like having blood drawn. However, having blood drawn daily can become painful after awhile, and that is when a doctor may decide to install a port device to lessen the pain felt by the patient each time they must receive chemo. Some patients reported a cool sensation during the treatment, similar to the feeling when receiving saline solution through an IV. Others felt a burning sensation, or pain – any sensation should be reported to a doctor or nurse, as this may signal a problem with the treatment.

Many people who know cancer and undergo chemo say that, if it weren’t for the side effects, they’d be able to continue living life normally, without much interruption. It is often these side effects that prevent people from following their routine. Depending on the frequency of chemo treatments, the dosage, the type of chemo being administered, and the aggressiveness of a patient’s treatment regime, some may be able go about their lives more easily than others. Some patients remain in the hospital throughout their course of treatment, while others [even those receiving chemo through an IV or port] can return home and travel to the hospital or medical center only for chemotherapy sessions. Those taking chemo pills do not have to return to the hospital to receive chemo, as they can take the pills at home on their own.

Side effects of chemo include extreme fatigue, nausea, and others. Most people equate chemo treatment with losing one’s hair. This is often the case. Some patients opt to shave their head prior to beginning chemotherapy, so that the loss of their hair is less surprising.

The cost of chemo treatment depends on the type of drug being administered, how much, how often, and for how long. It may also depend on where the oncologist or treatment center gets their drugs from. Some health insurance plans will cover chemo treatment, to some extent. A patient who must undergo chemo and has questions about whether or not their insurance will cover the cost [which can be quite high, depending on the situation] should call their insurance company, as well as the American Cancer Society – some patients may be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act [1-800-227-2345].

Most cancer centers have a person who specializes in assisting families with the cost of treatment. This individual can help a person with cancer locate financial and other resources, and can provide qualification information for those who are interested in Medicare or Medicaid. It’s no secret that treating cancer is expensive – but there are resources for people who need them.

The American Cancer Society has compiled a “checklist” of sorts, for those who have been diagnosed with cancer and are going to begin chemotherapy. It’s an excellent resource for those who want to ask the right questions of their treatment team. Here’s our version -

Pre-Chemo Checklist

Why am I undergoing chemo? In other words – what’s the goal of chemo treatment?

Can chemo potentially cure my cancer?

Do I have other options for treating my cancer besides chemo?

If chemo does not work, what are my options?

How much will this cost? What financial resources are available to me to cut costs?

How often will I be receiving chemo?

Will you be administering chemo intravenously, or do I have another option?

How should I prepare for treatment?

I am currently on other medications – will I experience any type of interaction once I begin chemo?

What side effects should I prepare for? How do I ease the discomfort I may experience?

Do you think I will also need surgery or radiation therapy?

Will I be able to continue working, etc?

The best advice to any new cancer patient, especially those who will be undergoing chemo, is to ask a lot of questions before beginning treatment. An informed patient is an empowered patient, and a person who feels empowered, confident and in control is more likely to have a successful course of treatment.


American Cancer Society

Leave a Reply