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What is Chemotherapy?

“Chemotherapy” (often called ‘chemo’ for short) refers to the use of medication to destroy cancer cells. There are many different chemotherapy drugs available. These medications can be used alone or in combination. A specialist will determine which chemotherapy medication(s) is most appropriate for each individual, based on factors such as the type of cancer being treated, how developed the cancer is and the goals of treatment.

Chemo treatment can be prescribed in different ways at different times for different purposes. These can include:

  1. As the only treatment. The goal may be to destroy all the cancer cells if this is possible, or to keep the number of cancer cells under control, allowing the person to live longer.
  2. To reduce the risk of cancer returning after initial treatment with surgery or radiation. This is called Adjuvant Chemotherapy. Adjuvant chemotherapy works by killing any remaining cancer cells that may have been left behind after the initial treatment.
  3. To reduce the size of a tumour before another treatment, such as surgery or radiation, is performed. This is called Neoadjuvant Chemotherapy. Neoadjuvant chemotherapy can improve the success of subsequent surgery or radiation therapy or allow for these treatments to take place in tumours that might otherwise be too big.
  4. To improve or eliminate symptoms caused by cancer (such as pain, fatigue, difficulty in breathing) by shrinking tumours that cannot be completely eradicated. This is called Palliative Chemotherapy.

How does chemotherapy work?

Chemotherapy works by stopping cells from growing, dividing and making more cells. As cancer cells generally grow and divide much faster than normal cells, chemotherapy has a more pronounced effect on cancer cells than it does on normal cells. The effect of chemotherapy on normal cells can result in some of the side effects that chemotherapy is well known for.

Some chemotherapy medications kill dividing cells by damaging the part of the cell’s control centre that controls the replication, while others act by interrupting the chemical processes involved in cell division. A combination of different chemotherapy medications are often used, which target different stages of cell division. This provides a greater chance of killing more cancer cells.

Chemotherapy Types

There are many different types of chemotherapy. The type used depends on a number of factors, including the results of clinical trials, the nature of the cancer and the overall health of the person being treated.

Most types of cancer have standard protocols that guide a doctor’s decision about the type of chemotherapy to prescribe. These protocols detail the type, dose and schedule of the medication(s) to be given. However, there is no one correct choice when it comes to selecting chemotherapy medications. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages and a good choice in one person or at one time may not be the best option in a different person or at a different time.

Most chemotherapy is given as an infusion into a vein (intravenously), although some chemotherapy can be given as injections under the skin (subcutaneous) or tablets (called ‘oral chemotherapy’). At View Health – chemo@home, we can assist with the administration of intravenous, subcutaneous and oral chemotherapy. Speak to your doctor or give one of our friendly team members a call to see how View Health – chemo@home can help you.

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