Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy, or "chemo," as it is more commonly called, uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells, control their growth and relieve pain symptoms. Although surgery and radiation therapy destroy or damage cancer cells in targeted areas, chemo works throughout your entire body, attacking cancer cells that have metastasized, or spread, from the tumor to other parts of the body.

Receiving chemotherapy

Although chemo may involve just one drug, two or more drugs are often used in combination chemotherapy, depending on the type of cancer and its rate of progression. There are numerous chemo drugs with different mechanisms of actions that, when combined, work synergistically to effectively kill more cancer cells and reduce the chance that the cancer becomes resistant to one specific drug.

The type of chemo and drugs each patient will receive is based on the shared goals of both patient and physician, which might include:

  • Curing the cancer
  • Keeping it from spreading
  • Relieving cancer-related symptoms.

Chemo treatment schedules vary – it may be given once a day, week, or month depending on your type of cancer, how advanced it is, your chemo drugs and your body’s reaction to the drugs. Chemo is usually given in cycles – a period of treatment followed by a period of rest. This break gives your body time to rebuild healthy new cells and helps you regain your strength.

Although in some circumstances chemotherapy may be your only cancer treatment, sometimes it will be given along with surgery, radiation therapy or immunotherapy. Neo-adjuvant chemotherapy makes a tumor smaller before surgery or radiation therapy; adjuvant chemotherapy destroys cancer cells that may remain after surgery or radiation therapy.

Side effects

Typical side effects of chemotherapy include fatigue, nausea and vomiting, pain, hair loss, confusion, depression, infection and anemia. These usually go away once the chemotherapy treatment cycle is finished.

Types of treatment

Chemotherapy can be given in several ways:

  • Intravenous (IV): This is the most common method; the drugs are given through a needle directly into a vein
  • Intra-arterial (IA): The drugs go directly into the artery that is supplying the cancer
  • Intraperitoneal (IP): The drugs go directly into the peritoneal cavity or abdomen area
  • Injections: The drugs are given by a shot into the muscle, under the skin, or directly into a cancer lesion, depending on the type or location of the cancer
  • Topical: The drugs, in the form of a cream, are rubbed onto the skin
  • Oral: The drugs come in pills, capsules or liquids that are swallowed

Chemo treatment schedules vary – it may be given once a day, week, or month depending on your type of cancer, how advanced it is, your chemo drugs and your body’s reaction to the drugs. Chemo is usually given in cycles – a period of treatment followed by a period of rest. This break gives your body time to rebuild healthy new cells and helps you regain your strength.

Although in some circumstances chemotherapy may be your only cancer treatment, sometimes it will be given along with surgery, radiation therapy or immunotherapy. Neo-adjuvant chemotherapy makes a tumor smaller before surgery or radiation therapy; adjuvant chemotherapy destroys cancer cells that may remain after surgery or radiation therapy.

UC San Diego Health System expertise

At UC San Diego Health System, chemotherapy is used to treat most cancers.

Heated intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), often called a ‘chemo bath,’ is a solution that is circulated in the abdominal area after an abdominal tumor has been surgically removed. The solution has been heated to about 106 degrees and circulates in the peritoneal cavity for about 90 minutes. Once the time is up, the surgeon removes the solution and closes the incision. HIPEC is available at only a handful of leading U.S. cancer centers. Studies have shown that heat works especially well with chemotherapy to kill tumor cells, which have an impaired ability to deal with heat. In normal chemotherapy, the drugs diffuse within a few millimeters. In HIPEC, a higher concentration of chemotherapy is used and is able to penetrate deeper into bulky tissue for greater tumor cell kill.

See more information about HIPEC at Moores Cancer Center.