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Cancer Health Center

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Chemotherapy: How It Works and How You'll Feel

Chemotherapy is a treatment for cancer that uses powerful drugs to destroy cancer cells. Unlike radiation or surgery, which target specific areas, chemo can work throughout your body. It targets cells that grow and divide quickly, as cancer cells do. But it can also affect some fast-growing healthy cells, like those of the skin, hair, intestines, and bone marrow. That’s what causes some of the side effects from the treatment.

Getting Ready for Chemotherapy

Your chemotherapy plan will be tailored to your specific disease. You might get just one drug or a few different ones. You might go through one treatment cycle or more. Chemo might be your only cancer treatment, or you might get it along with others such as surgery or radiation.

You and your doctor will decide together the treatment that's best for you based on:

  • The type of cancer you have
  • How large your tumor is and how far it has spread, called the stage of your disease
  • How healthy you are overall
  • Any cancer treatments you’ve had before
  • Your goals for your care

Keep a list of any questions you have about chemo, and bring it when you visit your doctor. To help you remember details, you may want to bring a relative or friend to your appointments.

Bring a list of all the medications and supplements you take, too, since they can change the effects of chemo. Your doctor can tell you if you should stop taking any of those drugs before your treatment begins. And tell your doctor about any health problems you have before you start.

How You Get Chemotherapy

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

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

How you will take it depends on the type of drug you need. You could get it as:

  • A pill or capsule to swallow
  • A cream or gel you put on your skin
  • An injection or infusion into a vein

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