Chemotherapy, or chemo, uses powerful chemical agents (drugs) to kill cancer cells. Cancer is a group of diseases in which abnormal cells reproduce uncontrollably. Both normal cells and cancer cells go through cycles (resting phase, active growing phases, and division). Traditional chemotherapy agents are designed to interfere with this cycle. They attack cancer cells because they grow and multiply much faster then most normal cells in your body. There are, however, some normal cells in your body that also reproduce rapidly such as hair follicles and the cells that your digestive tract (mouth, stomach, intestines). These normal cells will eventually grow back and be healthy, but during treatment the damage caused by chemo can result in nausea, hair loss, fatigue, etc.
As part of the quest for a cure and to identify therapies that are more effective and/or have fewer side effects, researchers have created drugs therapies that work differently than traditional chemotherapy
Immunotherapies, such as interferon and the new vaccine sipuleucel T, work by stimulating your body’s immune system to destroy cancer cells.
Targeted therapies, such as tamoxifen and cetuximab, disrupt some key process the cancer cells need to grow and reproduce. A targeted therapy drug may:
- interfere with specific molecules within or on the cells
- change the way proteins work within the cells
- trigger the cells’ self-destruct mechanism
- block the growth of new blood vessels to the tumors (Tumors may create new blood vessels to bring them the extra nutrients and oxygen they need as they grow.)
There are many different kinds of chemotherapy. You may be treated with one drug or a combination of drugs. Chemotherapy drugs may be given to:
- treat /cure your cancer
- decrease the size of tumors so they can be safely removed surgically
- increase the cancer-killing effectiveness of other treatments
- control the cancer, relieve symptoms, and/or improve your quality of life
Drug therapies may be very effective tools against cancer but they can have side effects and may carry risks of their own. Side effects may be mild or lead to serious complications. For side effects and other details about a specific drug, go to Drug Profiles. Information about managing side effects can be found in this section