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What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy (also called chemo) is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to destroy cancer cells.

How does chemotherapy work?

Chemotherapy works by stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, which grow and divide quickly. But it can also harm healthy cells that divide quickly, such as those that line your mouth and intestines or cause your hair to grow. Damage to healthy cells may cause side effects. Often, side effects get better or go away after chemotherapy is over.

What does chemotherapy do?

Depending on your type of cancer and how advanced it is, chemotherapy can:

  • Cure cancer - when chemotherapy destroys cancer cells to the point that your doctor can no longer detect them in your body and they will not grow back.
  • Control cancer - when chemotherapy keeps cancer from spreading, it slows its growth, or destroys cancer cells that have spread to other parts of your body.
  • Ease cancer symptoms (also called palliative care) - when chemotherapy shrinks tumors that are causing pain or pressure.

How is chemotherapy used?

Sometimes, chemotherapy is used as the only cancer treatment. But more often, you will get chemotherapy along with surgery, radiation therapy, or biological therapy. Chemotherapy can:

  • Make a tumor smaller before surgery or radiation therapy. This is called neo-adjuvant chemotherapy.
  • Destroy cancer cells that may remain after surgery or radiation therapy. This is called adjuvant chemotherapy.
  • Help radiation therapy and biological therapy work better.

How to prepare for your chemotherapy treatment

Learn ahead of time about your chemo. One of your goals is probably to see your chemo treatment through as prescribed. In order to gain all the information needed, you may:

  • Have an open dialogue with your doctor and care team.
  • Ask about what chemo side effects you should expect and how to minimize these side effects
  • A change in a person's condition caused by taking a drug, using a medical device, or through another type of treatment.

Understanding your treatment plan can help you in many ways:

  • You'll know what to expect from treatment
  • You may feel less anxious knowing more
  • You may learn how to avoid certain treatment interruptions
  • Aim to get through chemo as your doctor has prescribed it. Doing so may improve your odds for meeting treatment goals

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