What Is Chemotherapy?Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer with drugs that can destroy cancer cells. These drugs often are called "anticancer" drugs.
How Does Chemotherapy Work?
Normal cells grow and die in a controlled way. When cancer occurs, cells in the body that are not normal keep dividing and forming more cells without control. Anticancer drugs destroy cancer cells by stopping them from growing or multiplying. Healthy cells can also be harmed, especially those that divide quickly. Harm to healthy cells is what causes side effects. These cells usually repair themselves after chemotherapy.
Because some drugs work better together than alone, two or more drugs are often given at the same time. This is called combination chemotherapy.
Other types of drugs may be used to treat your cancer. These may include certain drugs that can block the effect of your body's hormones. Or doctors may use biological therapy, which is treatment with substances that boost the body's own immune system against cancer. Your body usually makes these substances in small amounts to fight cancer and other diseases. These substances can be made in the laboratory and given to patients to destroy cancer cells or change the way the body reacts to a tumor. They may also help the body repair or make new cells destroyed by chemotherapy.
What Can Chemotherapy Do?Depending on the type of cancer and how advanced it is, chemotherapy can be used for different goals:
Is Chemotherapy Used With Other Treatments?Sometimes chemotherapy is the only treatment a patient receives. More often, however, chemotherapy is used in addition to surgery, radiation therapy, and/or biological therapy to:
Which Drugs Are Given?Some chemotherapy drugs are used for many different types of cancer, while others might be used for just one or two types of cancer. Your doctor recommends a treatment plan based on:
What About Clinical Trials?Clinical trials, also called cancer treatment studies or research studies, test new treatments in people with cancer. Clinical trials test many types of treatments such as new drugs, new approaches to surgery or radiation therapy, new combinations of treatments, or new methods such as gene therapy. The goal of this research is to find better ways to treat cancer and help cancer patients. There are different types of clinical trials, called Phase I, Phase II, and Phase III trials. Each is one of the final stages of a long and careful cancer research process. If your doctor does not suggest you take part in a clinical trial, you may want to ask about clinical trials as a treatment choice for you.
Possible benefits of clinical trials include
Before deciding to join a clinical trial you will want to ask important questions such as: What are the possible short- and long-term risks, side effects, and benefits to me? How could the study affect my daily life? Will I have to pay for any treatment, tests, or other charges?
The National Cancer Institute's (NCI) booklet Taking Part in Clinical Trials: What Cancer Patients Need to Know lists questions you may want to ask your doctor and helps answers many of the questions you may have about clinical trials. It also informs you about your rights and protections. For example, you are free to leave a study at any time. You may order the booklet by calling NCI's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
--National Cancer Institute
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