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Prostate Cancer: Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of any one or combination of cancer-fighting drugs. It is prescribed in cases of recurrent or advanced prostate cancer that has not responded to hormone treatment, but it is not used to treat early stage disease except as part of a clinical trial.

Chemotherapy is given in cycles of treatment followed by a recovery period. The entire treatment generally lasts three to six months, depending on the type of chemotherapy medications given. Those medications may be taken by mouth (oral) or given into the vein (intravenous or IV).

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How Is Chemotherapy Given?

Generally, chemotherapy drugs are given intravenously (directly into the vein) or by mouth. Once the drugs are absorbed, they enter the bloodstream and travel to virtually all parts of the body to reach cancer cells that may have spread beyond the prostate.

 

When Is Chemotherapy Given?

Chemotherapy may be ordered for advanced prostate cancer that has not responded to hormone treatment. It is usually given for metastatic disease (disease that has spread). Metastatic disease may be present at diagnosis or, in some cases, the cancer can return in a distant location months or years after initial treatment.

Chemotherapy is given to cause the cancer to shrink and, hopefully, to disappear. Even if the cancer does not disappear, symptoms may be relieved.

What Are the Side Effects?

Because chemotherapy acts to kill rapidly-dividing cancer cells, it also kills other rapidly-dividing healthy cells in the bodies, such as the membranes lining the mouth, the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, hair follicles, and bone marrow. As a result, the side effects of chemotherapy relate to these areas of damaged cells. The good news is that the damaged noncancerous cells will be replaced with healthy cells, so the side effects are only temporary.

The specific side effects you have depend on the type and amount of medicines you are given and how long you are taking them. The most common, temporary side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Diarrhea
  • Infertility (a potential permanent side effect of chemotherapy)

Other side effects associated with chemotherapy's effects on bone marrow include an increased risk of infection (due to low white blood cell counts), bleeding or bruising from minor injuries (due to low blood platelet counts), and anemia-related fatigue (due to low red blood cell counts).

Some medications help control certain side effects, such as nausea and vomiting or diarrhea. Although it may take some time, side effects related to chemotherapy will go away when the treatments stop.

Ask your doctor about specific side effects you can expect from your chemotherapy medicines. Also, discuss troubling or unmanageable side effects with your doctor.
 

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Jay B. Zatzkin, MD, FACP on August 01, 2013
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