Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of medicines or drugs to treat cancer. The thought of having chemotherapy frightens many people. But knowing what chemotherapy is, how it works, and what to expect can often help calm your fears. It can also give you a better sense of control over your cancer treatment.

Chemotherapy is the use of strong drugs to treat cancer. You will often hear chemotherapy called “chemo,” (key-mo) but it’s the same treatment.

Chemo was first used to treat cancer in the 1950s. It has helped many people live full lives. The chemo drugs your doctor or nurse gives you have been tested many times. Research shows they work to help kill cancer cells.

What does chemo do?

There are more than 100 chemo drugs used today. Doctors choose certain drugs based on the kind of cancer you have and its stage (how much cancer is in your body). Chemo can be used for different reasons. Your doctor will discuss these with you before you start treatment.

Chemo may be used to:

Keep the cancer from spreading.
Slow the cancer’s growth.
Kill cancer cells that may have spread to other parts of the body.
Relieve symptoms such as pain or blockages caused by cancer.
Cure cancer.

How does chemo work?

The body is made up of trillions of normal healthy cells. Cancer starts when something causes changes in a normal cell. This cancer cell then grows out of control and makes more cancer cells. Each type of cancer affects the body in different ways. If cancer is not treated, it can spread and affect the rest of your body.

Your doctor may suggest chemo to cure your cancer. Sometimes the goal is to slow the growth of the cancer. Other times the goal may be to reduce symptoms or problems caused by growing tumors so that you feel better. Chemo is often used to fight cancers that have spread to other parts of the body (metastasized – meh-TAS-tuh-sized). Be sure to talk to your doctor about the goal of your treatment.

Chemo kills cancer cells. These drugs can affect normal cells, too. But most normal cells can repair themselves.

Your treatment will probably use more than one chemo drug. This is called combination chemotherapy. The drugs work together to kill more cancer cells.


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