Chemotherapy FAQs

Chemotherapy is the general term for any medication or combination of medication that kills, damages, or prevents the growth of cancer cells.

What are the different kinds of chemotherapy?

Many drugs and combinations of drugs are used to fight cancer. When only one drug is given, it is called single-agent chemotherapy. If several drugs are given at the same time, it is called combination chemotherapy. Your doctor will work with you to choose the best treatment option for you.

How is chemotherapy administered?

Chemotherapy can be given in a number of ways. Many chemotherapy medications are too harsh to go through the digestive tract, so they are given intravenously. IV, or intravenous chemotherapy, is delivered through a tube. One end of the tube is connected to a bag containing your medication and the other end is placed into a vein.

Some chemotherapy is available in pill or liquid form that can be taken by mouth, and others can be applied topically, as a cream or lotion.

Chemotherapy may be given as an injection. The name of the injection tells you where the chemotherapy will be placed:

  • intrathecal or intraventricular: into the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord and brain
  • intramuscular: into a muscle
  • intra-arterial (IA): into an artery
  • subcutaneous: just under the skin
  • intrapleural: into the chest cavity
  • intraperitoneal (IP): into the abdominal cavity
  • intravesical: into the bladder
  • intratumoral: into the tumor

How does it work?

Chemo slows down or stops the growth of cancer cells. Usually it recognizes and attacks cancer cells because those cells reproduce quickly. Unfortunately, there are some cells in your body that also reproduce quickly – for example, those that line the digestive tract or cause hair growth. That is why chemotherapy can cause nausea, vomiting, hair loss, and other side effects. The good news is that, in many cases, the side effects get better or go away after chemotherapy is over.

How will I feel during chemotherapy? Will it be painful?

Most people do not find getting chemotherapy itself a painful experience, but it affects people in different ways, and those effects can vary widely. Factors that can influence how chemotherapy will affect you include your previous health, your type and stage of cancer, the type and dose of chemotherapy you are receiving, and other current medical conditions. Doctors and nurses cannot know for certain how you will feel during chemotherapy. Please talk to you nurses about managing any side effects you may experience.

What are the side effects of chemotherapy?

Certain side effects may be associated with certain classes of drugs, but each patient's personal experience with chemotherapy differs. You can follow this link to find out how to manage the side effects associated with your chemotherapy.  But be sure to discuss your concerns with your physician.

How long does chemotherapy last?

Chemotherapy is administered during a series of treatment sessions. Your Roswell Park team will determine the number of sessions you need. A complete series of sessions is called a chemotherapy course.

When you begin your sessions, your doctor usually tells you when your chemotherapy will be complete. There are complications that can delay treatment. The most common physical cause of delay is a drop in your white blood count (WBC), also called neutropenia, which puts you at high risk for infection. Complications such as a drop in WBCs, RBCs (red blood cells), or platelets need to be resolved before you can have another treatment.

What can I do to make my chemotherapy as successful as possible?

Eat a balanced diet, get plenty of rest, seek support, and talk to your doctor or nurse if you’re experiencing any side effects other than those you have been told to expect, or if your side effects are severe.

Preparing yourself is important. We are here to help!