What Exactly is Chemotherapy? 5 Things You Need to Know

What Exactly is Chemotherapy - 5 Things You Need to Know | HealthSoul

Chemotherapy refers to a group of drugs that treat multiple types of cancer. Although traditional and standard chemo used to be the only kind of drug that could treat cancer, there now exists a wide variety of medicines that can specifically target tumors. In this article, we’ll discuss the systemic chemotherapy treatment that kills or reduces the size of tumors throughout the body.

1. How Does Chemotherapy Work?

Chemotherapy targets cancer cells that grow and multiply quickly. Since cancer can spread to every cell of the body, chemo works to stop the growth of other tumors that could form. At the same time, chemo also targets the active cancer cells, making this treatment systemic.

2. What are the Side Effects of Chemotherapy?

Chemo doesn’t discriminate. All fast-growing cells are affected by chemotherapy, which is why we lose our hair and eyebrows immediately after taking the first dose. Other side effects include:

  • Infection
  • Easy bruising/bleeding
  • Fatigue
  • Anemia
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Appetite changes
  • Inability to focus
  • Mouth sores
  • Kidney problems
  • Mood changes
  • Fertility problems

Chemotherapy is harsh on the body, and it may not be the right treatment for you. It’s essential for you to get educated about chemotherapy and other treatments before talking to your doctor. While speaking with an oncologist, discuss alternative treatment options for your type of cancer. 

Please note that not everyone will receive the above side effects or experience the same symptom severity or longevity. Your doctor can give you medicines that alleviate chemo side effects. Although long-term side effects aren’t common, heart and nerve damage could occur.

3. What are the Goals of Chemotherapy?

Although the side effects of cancer sound scary, the benefits of chemotherapy often outweigh the negatives. The three main goals of chemo in cancer treatment can help us understand the overall necessity of this treatment, as chemotherapy can save or prolong your life.

Cure (Curative Care)

If possible, chemotherapies’ primary goal is to cure cancer. This is obtained when all cancer cells are destroyed and don’t come back. Doctors often describe chemo as having a curative intent, which means achieving total health is a possibility but not a certainty.

Control (Controlative Care)

When curing cancer isn’t possible, chemotherapy is given to control the disease. At Stage 3 or 4, the likelihood of surviving most cancers becomes less than 10%, which may make others deny treatment. However, curability is still possible. At the minimum, a prolonged life is likely.

Palliation (Palliative Care)

Palliation refers to the ability to ease symptoms when cancer has progressed to the point it’s affecting your quality of life. Terminal cancer, which is when the disease has spread throughout the body, is nearly unsurvivable. When this happens, chemo is prescribed to ease the pain.

4. How is Chemotherapy Given?

Chemotherapy is delivered in multiple ways, although intravenous is the most common. The drug can quickly enter the bloodstream, making it easier to find and kill cancer cells.

  • Intravenous: Administered directly into the veins. Intravenous chemo can be delivered by needle, port (small disc under the skin), catheter, or pump attached to a port.
  • Injection: The drug is delivered with a shot into the hip, arm, thigh, leg, or stomach.
  • Intraperitoneal: Delivered to the peritoneal cavity (liver, intestines, ovaries, stomach)
  • Intra-arterial: Chemi is delivered directly into the artery that is feeding cancer.
  • Intrathecal: Injected into the cerebrospinal fluid, which is found in the spine and brain.
  • Oral: Oral chemotherapy treatment is delivered by a liquid or pill.
  • Topical: Chemo can be administered with cream and rubbed onto the skin.

Since chemotherapy is administered in cycles, specific treatment methods may work in tandem with others or will start at a later date. For example, intravenous is typically given once a month.

5. How Much Does Chemo Cost?

The average chemotherapy cost is determined by the type of cancer, the stage of the disease, the duration, chemotherapy type, treatment setting, locations, and the number of treatments. 

Chemo can range from $10,000-$200,000 or more without health insurance. With health insurance, you’ll likely pay 10-15% out of pocket, depending on your insurance plan. Health insurance typically covers office visits, laboratory tests, imaging tests, surgery, radiation, and drug therapy. To ease the financial weight of chemotherapy, be sure to choose in-network providers, check if you need pre-approval, and get covered for emergency care.