Uncovering Chemotherapy

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Uncovering Chemotherapy

You know it fights cancer, but how?

Chemotherapy — often shortened to chemo — is the use of chemicals to treat many diseases and disorders, but it is usually associated with cancer treatment.

Why is chemotherapy used?

Depending on the type of cancer and its stage, chemotherapy can fight cancer in these ways:

  • Eradicate all cancer cells and cure cancer.
  • Slow the growth of cancer cells and keep cancer from spreading to other parts of the body.
  • Shrink tumors that are causing pressure or pain (palliative chemotherapy).

Chemotherapy can be used along with surgery, radiation therapy or biological therapy through these strategies:

  • It can shrink a tumor so that doctors can perform surgery or provide radiation (neoadjuvant chemotherapy).
  • It may eradicate cancer cells that may remain after surgery or radiation therapy (adjuvant chemotherapy).
  • It can eradicate cancer cells that have come back (recurrent cancer) or spread to other parts of the body (metastatic cancer).

How does chemotherapy work?

Chemotherapy attacks rapidly dividing cells. Rapid, uncontrolled cell division and growth are hallmarks of cancer. Chemotherapy works this way:

  • It stops cell division, which stops cells from multiplying.
  • It can target the food source of cancer cells so they can no longer grow.
  • It can stop the growth of new blood vessels that supply blood to cancer cells.
  • It may trigger cancer cells to commit suicide.

How do doctors decide which chemotherapy to use?

Oncologists use the latest research and guidelines to select the best therapy for their patients. City of Hope physicians helped set the standardized treatment guidelines for specific cancers that are used by doctors nationwide. A physician’s decision also is guided by other factors:

  • The type and severity (stage) of the cancer.
  • The patient’s age.
  • Other anticancer treatments received by the patient in the past.
  • The patient’s general health and the presence of other health problems, such as diabetes or heart disease.

How are new, targeted therapies different from chemotherapies?

Targeted therapies focus on cancer cells in these ways:

  • They disrupt the activity of specific molecules that help cancer cells to grow, divide and spread throughout the body, while standard chemotherapies act on all rapidly dividing cells, including healthy cells.
  • They are deliberately designed to precisely attack cancer cells by interfering with mechanisms unique to cancer.
  • They have fewer and less-toxic side effects than standard chemotherapies or radiation because they cause little or no collateral damage to normal cells.

Sources: American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute

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