Chemotherapy is a medical treatment used to treat various types of cancer and some other medical conditions. It involves the use of drugs (chemotherapeutic agents) that are designed to kill or inhibit the growth of rapidly dividing cells, which is a hallmark of cancer cells.

Chemotherapy is considered a systemic treatment because the drugs travel throughout the body, and can kill cancer cells that have spread (metastasized) to parts of the body far away from the primary tumor or cancer site. This makes it different from treatments like surgery and radiation. Surgery removes a tumor from a part of the body where cancer has been found, and radiation therapy is aimed at a certain area of the body to kill or damage cancer cells. Treatments like these are called local treatments because they affect one part of the body.

Sometimes chemotherapy is the only treatment you may need. More often though, chemotherapy is used in conjunction with surgery or radiation therapy, or both. And it’s sometimes used with other drugs, such as targeted therapy, hormone therapy, or immunotherapy. Chemotherapy may be used…

  • To shrink a tumor before or after surgery or radiation therapy
  • After surgery or radiation therapy to help kill any remaining cancer cells in the body. 
  • With other types of drugs to help kill cancer cells, such as targeted therapy drugs or immunotherapy drugs that help the immune system fight cancer.

What Types of Cancer are Treated with Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy can be used to treat a wide range of cancer types. The decision to use chemotherapy as part of a cancer treatment plan depends on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, the patient’s overall health, and the goals of treatment.

Chemotherapy may treat many different types of cancer, such as leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, multiple myeloma, and sarcoma, as well as breast, lung, and ovarian cancers.

How is Chemotherapy Given?

Chemotherapy can be administered in several ways, and the method chosen depends on the type of cancer, the specific chemotherapy drugs being used, the patient’s overall health, and the treatment plan developed by the medical oncologist. Here are the common methods of administering chemotherapy:

  • Intravenous (IV) Infusion: Intravenous chemotherapy is one of the most common methods. The chemotherapy drugs are delivered directly into a vein through a needle or a catheter. IV infusions can be given in different settings, including hospitals, clinics, or infusion centers. The drugs enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body, targeting cancer cells.
  • Oral Chemotherapy: Some chemotherapy drugs are available in the form of pills, capsules, or liquids. Patients can take these medications orally, usually at home. However, it’s essential for patients to follow their prescribed dosing schedule and instructions carefully when taking oral chemotherapy.
  • Intramuscular (IM) or Subcutaneous (SC) Injections: In some cases, chemotherapy drugs may be administered through injections directly into a muscle (IM) or just under the skin (SC). These injections are less common than IV chemotherapy but are used when appropriate.
  • Chemotherapy creams. Creams or gels containing chemotherapy drugs can be applied to the skin to treat certain types of skin cancer.
  • Chemotherapy drugs used to treat one area of the body. Chemotherapy drugs can be given directly to one area of the body. For instance, chemotherapy drugs can be given directly in the abdomen (intraperitoneal chemotherapy), chest cavity (intrapleural chemotherapy) or central nervous system (intrathecal chemotherapy). Chemotherapy can also be given through the urethra into the bladder (intravesical chemotherapy).
  • Chemotherapy given directly to the cancer. Chemotherapy can be given directly to the cancer or, after surgery, where the cancer once was. As an example, thin disk-shaped wafers containing chemotherapy drugs can be placed near a tumor during surgery. The wafers break down over time, releasing chemotherapy drugs. Chemotherapy drugs may also be injected into a vein or artery that directly feeds a tumor.

How often will I receive Chemotherapy Treatments?

The frequency and schedule of chemotherapy treatments can vary widely depending on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, the specific chemotherapy drugs being used, and the individual patient’s response to treatment. Your medical oncologist and healthcare team will determine the most appropriate treatment plan for you, including how often you will receive chemotherapy.