Chemotherapy, or “chemo,” is the use of drugs to stop cancer cells. Chemotherapy is used to treat many types of blood cancer. Different chemotherapy agents, or medications, may be used in combination, and some people receive chemotherapy in combination with other treatments for their blood cancer. Chemotherapy may be taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle. Chemotherapy often travels throughout the body, making standard chemotherapy typically a systemic treatment that can kill cancer cells anywhere in the body. However, certain chemotherapy may be also be given in a way that only affects certain parts of the body.1
How chemotherapy works
All cells grow and divide, but cancer cells often grow at a fast rate. Chemotherapy works by targeting fast-growing cells, such as cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs may work on a particular phase of cell growth, or they may work by damaging the genetic material of the cancer cell and prevent it from multiplying. Chemotherapy drugs are often characterized as cytotoxic, meaning they typically kill cancer cells.2,3
Unfortunately, chemotherapy cannot distinguish between fast-growing cells that are cancerous and other, healthy fast-growing cells in the body, such as those in the gastrointestinal tract and hair.2,3
Common side effects of chemotherapy
The side effects from chemotherapy are specific to the drugs being delivered, as each medication has its own possible side effects. In addition, not every person experiences the same side effects from chemotherapy, and the severity of side effects also varies between individuals. It’s important for patients to talk with their doctor about what to expect and which side effects should receive medical attention. Some side effects from chemotherapy are short-term and go away or resolve when treatment is over. Other side effects may be long-term or delayed.4
Common side effects from chemotherapy include:
- Lowered blood cell counts, which can potentially lead to anemia, an increased risk of infections, or easy bruising or bleeding
- Hair loss
- Memory problems
- Damage to the digestive tract, which can cause mouth sores, changes to taste or appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation
- Damage to the reproductive system, which can cause changes in sexual functioning or infertility4
Certain chemotherapy drugs have the potential to cause damage to the heart, kidneys, or the nervous system. With all chemotherapy, doctors may try to adjust the dosage to give enough to kill the cancer while keeping side effects at a minimum. Depending on how an individual’s body and blood cancer respond, dosages or the timing of chemotherapy may be adjusted during treatment.4
These are not all the possible side effects of chemotherapy. Patients should talk to their doctor about what to expect with treatment with chemotherapy.
Managing side effects
Many side effects can be managed, and some can be prevented. Communication between patients and their healthcare team is critical, and any side effects experienced should be brought to the attention of a doctor.
Side effects from blood cancer treatment are often temporary and tend to go away after treatment is completed. However, some side effects may last longer or be irreversible. Reducing the dosage, changing medications, or delaying treatment regimens can be potential options to help manage certain side effects.
Patients should talk to their doctor if they have any questions, or if they have questions regarding their chemotherapy regimen. Before starting treatment with chemotherapy, patients should tell their doctor about all their health conditions, as well as any medications (prescription and over-the-counter), herbal supplements, and vitamins they are taking.
How to tell if chemotherapy is working
The presence or absence of side effects does not necessarily indicate if chemotherapy is working or not. To determine the effectiveness of chemotherapy, also called the treatment response, doctors may order blood tests, bone marrow biopsies, or imaging tests to measure the amount of cancer cells in the blood or bone marrow.1