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What Is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy (pronounced: kee-mo-THER-uh-pee), often just called chemo, is the use of medications to treat cancer. Cancer is a disease that occurs when cells in the body develop abnormally and grow in an uncontrolled way. Cancer cells divide and grow rapidly; chemotherapy works by interfering with this, preventing the cancer from spreading — and sometimes even curing the disease by helping to get rid of all the cancer cells in the body.

How Is Chemo Given?

A pediatric oncologist (pronounced: on-KAH-luh-jist), a doctor who treats cancer in kids and teens, will work with other health care professionals to decide on the type of chemotherapy treatment that's best for a cancer patient.

The many different ways that teens are given chemo medications include:

Combination Therapy

Chemotherapy can be used alone to treat cancer or in combination with other cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy or surgery. Radiation therapy directs high-energy X-rays at the body to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors (a group or clump of abnormally growing cells). Surgery helps to remove larger tumors, making the job of the chemotherapy easier. The kind of therapy someone receives is based on the type of cancer that person has and whether it has spread to areas outside where it started.

Most cancers in teens are treated with more than one chemotherapy drug; doctors refer to this as combination chemotherapy. For a lot of people, combination therapy improves the chances that their cancer will be cured — the cancer has less chance of building up a resistance to a combination of chemo drugs than it does to just one drug. (Resistance means that the cancer no longer reacts to that medication.) Another important strategy in treating cancer is giving a person repeated courses of chemo. This helps prevent the cancer cells from regrowing.

People who feel nervous about receiving chemo can ask about touring the hospital or clinic before treatment begins to help feel more at ease. They can also join a support group for teens and families coping with cancer.

When and Where Is Chemo Given?

A person can receive chemotherapy treatments at a hospital, cancer treatment center, doctor's office, or at home. Most teens receive theirs at a clinic or hospital and go home afterward. Sometimes, though, people who are getting chemo treatments may need to stay in the hospital so doctors can watch for side effects.

Some people receive chemotherapy every day; others receive it every week or every month. Doctors use the word "cycles" to describe chemotherapy treatments because the treatment periods are mixed in with periods of rest.

Common Side Effects

While chemotherapy works to treat cancer, normal cells — like hair cells, which also divide rapidly — can be affected, too. This can cause side effects, which are usually temporary and are different from person to person, depending on the person's age, the type of treatment, and where the cancer is located. There are medicines to help with many side effects of chemo, so speak your doctor about any problems you might be having.

Some of the side effects of chemo are:

Long-Term Side Effects

Because chemotherapy can cause long-term side effects (known as late effects), it is critical that people who have had cancer continue to get routine medical care even after their cancer has been cured. Depending on their treatment, people who have had cancer should get regular heart and lung exams, as well as blood tests for thyroid function.

It's important for anyone who's receiving chemo to tell nurses or doctors about side effects so they can help treat the problem. Doctors who treat people using chemotherapy aren't just working to cure cancer; they also want their patients to be as comfortable as possible while they're having chemo.

Getting Support

Chemotherapy can be frightening to think about. If you're one of the many people whose cancer is being treated with chemotherapy, your doctors, nurses, and other members of the cancer treatment team are there to help you and to answer questions before, during, and after chemotherapy.

You can also look for support from friends and family. Your friends make you feel good when you're healthy — so surrounding yourself with friends when you're sick is sure to be a pick-me-up. Phone, email, Skype, etc., are great ways to keep in touch, even if you're having a bad day. If you're afraid that your friends will feel weird or embarrassed, talk to a parent or nurse about some ideas on how to cope.

Taking Care of Yourself During Chemo

In addition to dealing with the many emotions you'll feel, you have to manage the physical stuff, too. Try these tips for staying comfortable and healthy during treatment:

Once you've finished chemo, it's still important to visit the doctor for follow-up appointments. During these checkups, the doctor will want to know how you're feeling and whether you're experiencing any side effects. He or she will also check to see whether there are any signs of the cancer coming back.

Undergoing treatment for cancer can be scary, time-consuming, and sometimes painful. But for teens who beat cancer, there may be a silver lining — cancer survivors are often tougher, have a greater appreciation of what life has to offer, and possess the courage and determination it takes to follow their dreams.

Talk with your doctors, nurses, family, and friends if you have any questions or worries. Though going through treatment for cancer can be tough, you are not alone!

Reviewed by: Lisa Wray, MD
Date reviewed: February 2014

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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