Chemotherapy for Cancer

Chemotherapy (also called chemo) is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells throughout the body. While it is sometimes used alone, it’s often combined with other cancer treatments such as surgery, radiation, or immunotherapy. 

How Does Chemotherapy Work?

Chemotherapy works by stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, which grow and divide quickly. It is considered a systemic medication, meaning it travels through the bloodstream and reaches all parts of the body.

Depending on the patient’s treatment plan, chemotherapy may be the only treatment used or it may be given along with other treatments such as radiation therapy, immunotherapy and/or targeted therapy. 

It’s sometimes used before surgery to shrink a tumor while other times it’s administered after surgery to help clear out any cancer cells left in the body. Some patients may receive it both before and after surgery. 

Many types of chemotherapy drugs are available. The medical oncologist will choose the best drug, or combination of drugs, for your specific type, stage, and grade of cancer.

Depending on where you are in your cancer treatment program, your chemotherapy may be designed to achieve one or more of the three goals: remission, controlling and/or relieving symptoms.


How is Chemotherapy Given?

Chemotherapy can be given in several different ways. The most common is administered through an IV at an outpatient cancer center like ours in the greater Philadelphia area. A “port” is often surgically inserted in the upper chest area during a short procedure. A port helps to decrease the anxiety of finding a vein each time.

There are a few other types of chemo that can be used. Among them, oral chemotherapy is becoming more common for some types of cancer. While not every chemo is available in oral format it’s more readily available than it used to be. Careful instructions are given on how to take these medications at home if that’s what is prescribed by the oncologist. 

Some types of chemotherapy may be given through a subcutaneous injection. These injections are usually administered in the back of your arm.

Another type of chemotherapy called intraperitoneal is used for some gastrointestinal (GI) or ovarian cancers where cancer cells are found on the lining of the abdomen. Higher doses of chemotherapy can be administered into a port in the abdomen. In some cases it’s given immediately after surgery while still in the operating room.

How Often Do You Get Chemotherapy?

The frequency of chemotherapy treatments depends on the type of cancer and which drug or combination of drugs you receive. Different drugs work at varying times in the cancer cell growth process. All of these factors will be taken into consideration by your cancer care team as they develop your treatment schedule. 

Chemotherapy is structured in cycles of treatments. Each cycle may last several weeks and you may receive treatment several times during that cycle. Each cycle is followed by a rest period and time to determine the effect of the treatment and the best next steps.

What Are the Side Effects of Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy not only kills fast-growing cancer cells, but also kills or slows the growth of healthy cells. It’s the damage to the healthy cells that causes most of the side effects of chemotherapy. Although everyone reacts differently to treatment, and some side effects depend on the specific medication, there are some common side effects that include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and low white or red blood cell counts. During your first treatment, one of our experienced nurses will review your treatment plan and medications and discuss the most common side effects. They will also review any medications prescribed to treat side effects. Patients are encouraged to call our telephone triage line 610-492-5900 as soon as any symptoms or issues occur for prompt treatment. 

Side effects can range from mild to severe. The good news is that there are steps you can take to better manage them.   

Be sure to talk with your oncologist or your infusion nurse about what you’re experiencing so they can help manage the side effects of cancer treatment. They may be able to make adjustments to your treatment plan so that you can tolerate it better.

Keep Reading About Chemotherapy Side Effects and How to Manage Them:

How Do I Know if Chemotherapy Treatment is Working?

Each person responds differently to chemotherapy. Throughout your treatment, your oncologist will monitor your progress, making any necessary adjustments. Not everyone experiences side effects from treatment. Because of this, the presence or absence of side effects is not a reliable means of measuring the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Images are typically taken through PET scans or CT scans to monitor the tumor’s response in addition to blood tests that can be run to look for a decrease in tumor markers in certain cancers.

Questions to Ask Your Oncologist About Chemotherapy

A cancer diagnosis that requires chemotherapy can leave you with a lot of questions. Take some time to think about your concerns and details you would want to discuss. Here are some questions about chemotherapy to ask your oncologist:

  • Why is chemotherapy the best treatment for me?
  • What specific type of chemotherapy are you recommending?
  • What is the goal of this treatment? What side effects could I experience?
  • How can they be managed?
  • How often will I receive chemotherapy?
  • How long will each treatment session last?
  • Will I need a port? If so, where will it be placed?
  • Are there certain restrictions (dietary, working, exercising) during my treatment?

Find Out Whether Chemotherapy Is Right For You

If you or a loved one has received a cancer diagnosis, schedule a consultation with one of our oncologists in the greater Philadelphia area. They will discuss your diagnosis and recommended treatment options as part of a personalized treatment plan. Our oncologists are also available to provide a second opinion on a diagnosis and treatment plan.


Schedule an appointment with our cancer treatment experts in Broomall or Glen Mills, PA.