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Chemotherapy: What to Expect

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How Chemotherapy Is Given

Depending on the type of chemo drugs you will take, the dose, your hospital, and your insurance, you might get your treatment in any of the following places:

  • Your home
  • The doctor's office
  • The hospital
  • The hospital's outpatient unit
  • A clinic 

How you will get your chemo treatment depends on the type of drug you will be taking.  You could be given:  

  • A pill or capsule
  • A cream or gel you apply directly to the skin
  • An injection or infusion

Sometimes the drug will be given through a catheter, a thin tube a surgeon inserts into a large vein often through the chest. The tube is left in place until chemotherapy is over.

In some cases, the catheter is attached to a small disc under your skin, called a port. A nurse will put a needle into the port to deliver the drug.

The drug can also be put directly into the tumor, either as an injection or a small disk implanted near the tumor releasing the drugs over time.

How Long Chemotherapy Takes

Treatment schedules vary. Whatever your treatment plan is, it is important to follow it precisely. The doctor will tell you exactly how much of a drug you need and when you need to have it. That means you can't skip appointments, or if you’re getting your chemo at home, you can’t change the amount or timing of your medication.

Typically, the doctor will prescribe a specific number of cycles for your treatment. A cycle refers to the number of days you take a drug and the number of days you don't. For example, your cycle may be 3 weeks long -- 2 weeks of daily chemo followed by 1 week of no therapy. The period of no therapy is important because it gives healthy cells time to recover.

Depending on your reaction to treatment, your doctor may make changes to your plan.

Side Effects

Discuss possible side effects with your doctor before you start therapy. Some people don’t have any; most have at least some. Your side effects will depend on many things, including the drug you take, your overall health, and the type and stage of cancer you have.

Possible temporary side effects include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Bowel and bladder problems
  • Hair loss
  • Infections

Longer-lasting side effects can include sexual and fertility problems, and possible organ damage.

Talk to your doctor about what to expect on the day of treatment as well as after treatment is over. Your doctor can help you manage your side effects.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Sujana Movva, MD on August 06, 2013
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