Chemotherapy uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells, control their growth or relieve pain symptoms. Chemotherapy may involve a single drug or a combination of two or more drugs, depending on the type of cancer and its rate of progression.

Chemotherapy can be used in combination with other treatments to either shrink tumors before surgery or radiation (neoadjuvant therapy), or to make sure all cancer cells have been eliminated after other treatments have been performed (adjuvant therapy).

Chemotherapy is administered in several ways:

Intravenous (IV) is the most common method. A needle is inserted into a vein and attached with tubing to a plastic bag holding the drug. For patients who undergo several chemotherapy sessions, a catheter is inserted into one of the large veins and left in place during the entire course of treatment. Some patients have a metal or plastic port implanted under the skin as an IV connection device.

Oral chemotherapy drugs are taken by mouth, either in pill or liquid form.

Injections are administered into the muscle, under the skin or directly into a cancer lesion, depending on the type or location of the cancer.

Isolated limb perfusion is a method of administering chemotherapy drugs directly to tumors in the arm or leg. The blood supply of the affected limb is isolated from the rest of the body. Then, heated chemotherapy drugs are pumped into the treatment area through tubes inserted into tiny incisions. Isolated limb perfusion is used to treat advanced or metastatic melanoma and some sarcomas.

Hepatic arterial infusion is used to treat liver cancer. A tiny pump is surgically inserted under the skin and connected to the hepatic artery, which supplies blood to the liver. Drugs are administered through the pump over a period of about two weeks.

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Side effects depend on the type of chemotherapy drugs used. The length and severity of chemotherapy side effects differ from patient to patient. Most are temporary and will disappear once treatment has ended. There are drugs and non-invasive complementary therapies that can help alleviate some of the more severe symptoms.

The most common side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • Temporary hair loss
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Pain
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Depression
  • Increased sun sensitivity
  • Numbness or weakness in the hands and feet
  • Chemobrain: cognitive issues that include memory problems, trouble concentrating and other mental symptoms