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Chemotherapy refers to the process of treating cancer using anti-cancer drugs. It kills the fast growing cancer cells, preventing the spread of the disease or completely getting rid of the disease. It can be done concurrently with radiotherapy (use of radiation to treat cancer). Unlike radiotherapy and surgery that target specific areas, chemotherapy moves throughout the body killing the cancer cells.

Blood tests are done before and during the treatment to assess the patient’s health and to monitor the effectiveness of the treatment. If the blood tests show any side effect like decrease in red blood cells, white blood cells or platelets, the treatment might be delayed to allow the patient to recover.

Why Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy can be used for the following reasons:

  1. Curative: Chemotherapy treatment can be used to cure cancer by completely destroying cancer cells.
  2. Control: In some cases chemotherapy treatment can be used to prevent the cancer cells from spreading to other parts of the body or to slow their growth.
  3. Palliative: In cases where the tumor has already spread to other organs or to a larger portion, chemotherapy can be used to shrink the tumor or to ease the pain.
  4. Neoadjuvant therapy: Chemotherapy can be used to shrink a tumor before radiation therapy or surgery, this is referred to as neoadjuvant chemotherapy.
  5. Adjuvant therapy: This refers to destroying any remaining cancer cells after radiation therapy or surgery.

Ways of delivering Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can be given in several ways depending on the type of cancer. The following are ways in which it can be delivered:

  • Orally: A patient swallows a pill or liquid that has the drugs. It can be taken from home but the patient has to make regular visits to the hospital for assesment should be follow the patient forgets to take one at a specific time, they should call a medical team immediately.
  • Injection. The drugs are injected into a muscle of a hip, thigh or arm.
  • Intra-arterial (IA).  The chemotherapy is delivered directly into the artery that leads to the tumor, using a needle or a catheter (a soft, thin tube)
  • Intravenous (IV). The drugs are injected directly into a vein.
  • Intraperitoneal (IP). The drugs are given through the peritoneal cavity, which contains organs as liver, intestines and stomach. It is done through surgery or through a tube with a special port that is put in by a doctor.
  • Topical. The drug is rubbed onto the skin as a cream.
  •  Intrathecal. The drugs are injected into the space between layers of tissue that cover the brain and spinal cord.

How Chemotherapy drugs work:

  • Chemotherapy drugs stop the growth of new blood vessels that supply a tumor in order to starve it.
  • They target the source of cancer cells’ food, which consist of enzymes and hormones they need to grow.
  • They impair mitosis or prevent cell division.
  • They trigger apoptosis, a form of programmed cell death. 

How long does the Chemotherapy treatment last?

Chemotherapy treatment can range from a single dose on one day to a few weeks depending on the type and stage of cancer. An oncologist will explain to the patient the form of chemotherapy they will receive and the duration it will take. They will be given a plan that specifies the treatment sessions. For patients who will need to undergo more than one course of treatment they will be given a rest period of one or several weeks to allow their bodies recover.

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

When delivering the treatment to kill the fast-growing cancer cells, normal, healthy cells might also be affected causing side effects. Example of normal cells that might be affected by chemotherapy are:

  •  Blood-forming cells
  • Cells in the mouth, digestive tract and reproductive  system,
  • Nervous system
  • Heart
  • Lungs
  • Bladder
  • Kidneys
  •  Hair follicles

 Some common side effects caused by chemotherapy:

  • Hair loss due to damage of hair follicles. Hair fall out might start few weeks after starting the treatment. It has no physical effect but it may cause emotional distress. The patient is advised to see a counselor or use a wig or other suitable covering.  
  • Fatigue. Fatigue is a common side effect on chemotherapy patients. Patients are advised to take plenty of rest.
  • Nausea and vomiting. It affects majority of cancer patients. The doctor might recommend anti-emetics drugs.
  • Anemia. Anemia is caused by low level of red blood cells. The patient might be asked to take Erythropoietin drugs, which help in restoring red blood cells.
  • Loss of appetite. Chemotherapy treatment affects the body’s metabolism leading to loss of appetite. Taking small portions and more frequent meals may help.
  • Loss of weight. This is as a result of loss of appetite.
  • Sores and pain in the mouth, tongue and throat when swallowing.
  • Kidney problems
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation



1)     American Cancer Society. 2016. Chemotherapy Side Effects. Retrieved from on 15/12/2018 at 1432 hours.

2)     Medical News Today. 2017. What you need to know about chemotherapy. Retrieved from on 14/12/2018 at 0921 hours.

3)     WebMD. 2017. Chemotherapy. 

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