What is Chemotherapy for Cancer Treatment?


What is Chemotherapy for Cancer Treatment?

A widely used treatment for cancer, chemotherapy involves the use of drugs (usually intravenous but sometimes oral or subcutaneous) to kill cancer cells in some or all parts of your body.

At 392.6 cases per 100,000 population, Nevada has a lower overall cancer rate than the national average of 448 per cases per 100,000 population. However, around 1-in-10 cancer victims in the state will receive chemotherapy if diagnosed in its early stages, which goes up to 4-in-10 if this deadly disease is diagnosed at a more advanced stage.

How does chemotherapy work?

Depending on the type and progress of the cancer, chemotherapy is used to cure, control or ease its symptoms. It involves either a single drug or a combination of drugs that attack cancer cells throughout the body.

It works by interfering with the reproduction of cancer cells, which otherwise happens at an uncontrolled rate. However, in doing this, it also attacks healthy cells, which then need time for recovery.

Chemotherapy is usually given in regular intervals called “cycles” which describe the schedule for the chemo drugs being administered. Several days or weeks are then allowed for recovery. The chemo drugs also need to be administered in specific amounts to ensure effectiveness, as well as to avoid toxic and potentially fatal side-effects.

The four major types of chemotherapy

There are four main types of chemotherapy, including:

Alkylating agents

By working directly with DNA, alkylating agents kill cancer cells at all stages of their life cycles.


By blocking normal metabolism in cancer cells, antimetabolites cause the cancer cells to stop growing.

Plant alkaloids

Plant alkaloids work by not allowing cancer cells to grow and divide so that they eventually die away.

Antitumor antibiotic

Different from the type of antibiotics taken to treat bacterial infections, antitumor antibiotics work by binding to the cancer cell’s DNA and preventing its RNA from synthesizing. This, in turn, prevents cancer cells from reproducing.

What to expect during the chemo treatment

While possibly lifesaving, chemotherapy is very powerful and has many side effects. It is usually administered in cycles over a period to be specified by your cancer specialist.  Doses may be administered on a single day, or over the course of up to a few weeks. Each cycle then allows for a recovery period which may be anywhere from one week to several weeks, depending on the drugs being used and your body’s ability to recover.

The drugs are administered either orally or intravenously, depending on the type and stage of the cancer. Some oral drugs may be given at home if the patient’s health allows it, though chemotherapy is usually performed under a doctor’s care and at specific times.

Chemotherapy treatments vary based on the type and stage of the cancer, and may include:

  • Injection into the veins
  • Injection into a major artery
  • Injection into the space around the brain and spinal cord called intrathecal administration
  • Injection into the abdominal cavity called intraperitoneal therapy
  • Injection directly into the tumor
  • Injection into artery which leads directly to the cancer

Regular blood tests will be given throughout treatments to monitor health and white blood cell count, and due to the invasive nature of chemotherapy, psychiatric care may be provided to help you cope with the ordeal.

Side effects of chemotherapy

Chemo has many side effects, though advancements have been made in reducing them. Side effects can vary from mild to severe depending on the type and length of treatment, though some patients may not experience any negative effects.

Since chemo attacks rapidly-multiplying cells whether they are cancer cells or healthy cells in bone marrow, digestive tract, reproductive organs or hair follicles, severe side effects are often experienced. These include:

  • Nausea and vomiting— More than 70% of chemo patients experience digestive distress including nausea and vomiting. These are usually mild due to advancements in supportive medications; however, it can continue even after sessions are complete
  • Digestive problems–Due to the excretion of damaged cells through the digestive tract, diarrhea and constipation may be experienced
  • Loss of appetite— Weight loss is occasionally a problem with chemo patients since the toxic effects of chemo drugs can reduce the body’s metabolism. But more commonly patients on chemotherapy actually gain weight. This depends on the type of treatment and type of cancer.
  • Hair loss–Since hair follicles are affected by most chemo drugs, hair may become brittle and fall out a few weeks after treatment. This is normally temporary, and once treatments are over, hair usually grows back
  • Lowered immune response–Many chemo drugs attack white blood cells and cause their numbers to decline. Since white blood cells are an important part of the immune system, this reduces your body’s ability to fight infection. This makes extra care in avoiding illness or infection necessary until the chemotherapy treatments are concluded, and antibiotics may also be given to lower the risk of infection
  • Anemia–Chemotherapy also attacks red blood cells, and when there aren’t enough of them to adequately deliver oxygen throughout the body it becomes anemia. Symptoms may include heart palpitations, fatigue, dizziness and shortness of breath. Doctors may use a drug called “erythropoietin” (EPO) to produce more red blood cells, and in some cases, a blood transfusion may be necessary
  • Excess bleeding–Blood platelets are necessary for blood to coagulate, and low platelet count due to chemotherapy can make bleeding hard to stop. This can make even minor cuts and scrapes dangerous, and if platelet counts fall too low a transfusion may be necessary
  • Infertility–Some types of chemo drugs can reduce fertility in both men and women, and due to the nature of chemotherapy, most patients lose interest in sexual activity. However, libido and fertility usually return after treatments are over, though it is very important to avoid becoming pregnant during chemo
  • Hearing loss–Some patients may experience either partial or complete hearing loss during chemo. Hearing may return after treatments, although the condition may sometimes be permanent

Speak with us about chemotherapy

Cancer is a serious, life-threatening disease, and chemotherapy is often the best way of treating it. At Intermountain Health, we are here for you every step of the way with the best chemo care possible using the latest state-of-the-art technologies. With our award-winning Oncology and Hematology teams and convenient locations throughout Southern Nevada, our goal is to provide you with the best, most convenient care possible for your best chance at beating this deadly disease.

Part of being well is being heard.