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Chemotherapy uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells, control their growth or relieve pain symptoms. Physicians on the medical staff can use chemotherapy in combination with other treatments, such as surgery or radiation therapy, to make sure all cancer cells have been destroyed. Chemotherapy differs from radiation therapy or surgery in that it is almost always used as a systemic treatment. This means the medicines travel throughout the whole body or system rather than being confined or localized to one area. This allows the medicine to reach cancer cells that may have spread to other parts of the body.

How Chemotherapy Works
Normal cells grow and die in a controlled way. When cancer occurs, cells in the body that are not normal keep dividing and forming more cells without control. Chemotherapy can destroy cancer cells by stopping them from growing or multiplying. Healthy cells also can be harmed, especially those that divide quickly. Harm to healthy cells is what causes side effects.

Drugs Used in Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy may involve one drug or a combination of two or more drugs. Your physician will recommend a treatment plan based on:

  • What kind of cancer you have
  • Part of the body where cancer is found
  • The effect of cancer on your normal body functions
  • Your general health

Chemotherapy can be given in several different ways: intravenously (through a vein), by mouth or by an injection.

Length of Chemotherapy
You may take chemotherapy once a day, once a week, or even once a month, depending on the type of cancer you have and the chemotherapy you are taking. How long you take chemotherapy also depends on the type of cancer and the length of time research has shown produces the best treatment results as determined by your physician.

Possible Side Effects
Side effects from chemotherapy vary, depending on the drugs used. Chemotherapy drugs can make you feel sick because they go after any cell that is quickly dividing, whether it is a cancer cell or not. In particular, chemotherapy can affect the following cells:

  • Cells in your hair and bone marrow (can cause hair loss and a tired feeling)
  • Cells of the skin and mouth (can cause sores in your mouth, and dry skin and hair)
  • Cells in your stomach and intestines (can cause you to feel nauseated)

Although side effects can be a challenge, therapies are available from your physician to help you cope with many of them.

Sources: American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute

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