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What are Chemotherapy and Immunotherapy?

Normally, cells divide and grow at a controlled rate. When there are “enough” cells, they stop dividing. Cancer cells divide and grow in an uncontrolled, purposeless way.

Chemotherapy is the use of chemicals to stop cancer cells from dividing and growing. Chemotherapy is a combination of the words “chemical” and “treatment.” It can also be called “anti-cancer” drugs.

In addition to stopping cancer cells from dividing and growing, immunotherapy increases the ability of the immune system to destroy cancer cells. Immunotherapy can interfere with a tumor’s ability to grow its own blood vessels. It can also reduce side effects of chemotherapy such as lowering of the white blood cells.

Chemotherapy and immunotherapy may be given in combination with other chemotherapy and immunotherapy, by itself, after surgery or with other forms of treatment such as radiation. Your doctor will develop a treatment plan based on the type, stage and location of cancer and your general health.

How are chemotherapy and immunotherapy drugs given?

Chemotherapy and immunotherapy can be given:

  • as a liquid into a vein through an IV (intravenous)
  • as a pill by mouth
  • as an injection or “shot” into the muscle or just under the skin
  • into the spinal fluid by lumbar puncture

Before the medication is given, you will have blood drawn to determine if it is safe for you to get the medication

How often and how long will I need treatment?

Your treatment plan depends on the type of cancer, the location, stage and the specific medications you are to receive. Chemotherapy and immunotherapy are given in cycles. One cycle is one or more medications given on a single day or over several days in a row.  The duration of each medication can be given in minutes, hours or days. The frequency of treatments may be weekly, every other week, or monthly. The length of treatment can be a few months to a year or more.

How will I know if the treatment is working?

Physical exams and tests will be done to determine if the treatment is working. Tests may include blood draws, X-rays or CT, PET or MRI scans.

What chemotherapy side effects can occur?

Side effects vary depending on whether the medication is chemotherapy or immunotherapy.  Not all chemotherapy or immunotherapy causes the same side effects.

General chemotherapy side effects include: hair loss, lowering of blood cells (white, red and platelets), nausea, vomiting, changes in appetite and fatigue.

Where will I receive chemotherapy and immunotherapy cancer treatment?

Where you receive chemotherapy and immunotherapy cancer treatment depends on a number of factors including the “regimen” or treatment plan, the potential side effects of the medications, and your general health. Most regimens can be safely given as an outpatient. However, some patients may need to be admitted to the hospital.