Chemotherapy is the use of any drug to treat any disease. But to most people, the word chemotherapy means drugs used for cancer treatment. It’s often shortened to “chemo.”
Surgery and radiation therapy remove, kill, or damage cancer cells in a certain area, but chemotherapy can work throughout the whole body. This means chemotherapy can kill cancer cells that have spread (metastasized) to parts of the body far away from the original (primary) tumor.
What are the goals of Chemotherapy?
If your doctor has recommended chemotherapy to treat your cancer, it’s important to understand the goals of treatment when making treatment decisions. There are three main goals for chemotherapy (chemo) in cancer treatment:
If possible, chemotherapy is used to cure cancer, meaning that the cancer is destroyed – it goes away and doesn’t come back.
Most doctors don’t use the word “cure” except as a possibility or intention. So, when giving treatment that has a chance of curing a person’s cancer, the doctor may describe it as treatment with curative intent.
There are no guarantees, and though cure may be the goal, it doesn’t always work out that way. It often takes many years to know if a person’s cancer is really cured.
Chemotherapy Treatment Plan
You and your cancer doctor, called an oncologist, will decide what drug or combination of drugs you will get. Your doctor will choose the doses, how the drugs will be given, and how often and how long you’ll get treatment. All of these decisions will depend on the type of cancer, where it is, how big it is, and how it affects your normal body functions and overall health.
Cancer can be treated with a single chemo drug, but often several drugs are used in a certain order or in certain combinations (called combination chemotherapy). Different drugs that work in different ways can work together to kill more cancer cells. This can also help lower the chance that the cancer may become resistant to any one chemo drug.
Sometimes chemotherapy is the only treatment you need. More often, chemotherapy is used with surgery or radiation therapy or both. Here’s why:
- Chemotherapy may be used to shrink a tumor before surgery or radiation therapy. Chemotherapy used in this way is called neoadjuvant therapy.
- It may be used after surgery or radiation therapy to help kill any remaining cancer cells. Chemotherapy used in this way is called adjuvant therapy.
- It may be used with other treatments if your cancer comes back.
Chemotherapy Doses and Schedules
In most cases, the most effective doses and schedules of drugs to treat specific cancers have been found by testing them in clinical trials. It’s important, when possible, to get the full course of chemotherapy, the full dose, and keep the cycles on schedule. This gives a person the best chance of getting the maximum benefit from treatment.
There may be times, though, when serious side effects require adjusting the chemotherapy plan (dose and/or schedule) to allow you time to recover. Sometimes, you might be given supportive medicines to help your body recover more quickly. Again, the key is to give enough chemo to kill the cancer cells without causing other serious problems.