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Community Cancer Care

Chemotherapy

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer drugs to treat cancerous cells that have spread (metastasized) to other parts of the body. It is a systemic (whole body) treatment, meaning it enters the body and travels through the body to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be given by mouth (a pill), through an IV line, injected (a shot), or in some cases placed topically on the skin.

There are over 100 different types of chemotherapy medicines being used in the United States. Some medicines are given alone, while others are used in combination. When chemotherapy medicines are given in combination it is because those medicines work well together and are more effective against the cancer. Other medicines are given along with chemotherapy to control or lessen the side effects.

Depending on the type of cancer and how far it has spread, chemotherapy can be used to:

  • Cure the cancer
  • Keep the cancer from spreading
  • Slow the cancer's growth
  • Kill cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body
  • Relieve symptoms caused by cancer

Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles—a treatment followed by a recovery period of three or four weeks, another treatment, and so on. The total course of chemotherapy is often four to six months, but may be more or less depending on your type of cancer and what your doctor feels is best for you. Chemotherapy is typically an outpatient procedure performed in a doctor’s office, hospital or at home.

Brain tumors and chemotherapy

Treating brain tumors with chemotherapy is different from treating tumors elsewhere in the body. The brain has a natural defense barrier called the blood brain barrier. This system protects the brain from foreign substances by blocking their passage into the blood. For a drug to be effective in treating brain tumors, a sufficient quantity must either pass through the blood brain barrier or bypass it completely. Some drugs do pass through the barrier. Other strategies include a temporary chemical disruption of the system. Chemotherapy may also be injected directly into the cerebrospinal fluid via either a spinal tap or a small surgically-implanted reservoir. In some cases, several dime-sized, chemo-containing wafers are implanted after the surgeon removes the tumor. These gradually dissolve, releasing the drug into the brain.

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