What is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of powerful medicines to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases, like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. There are over 100 anti-cancer drugs available today. These medications may be used alone, in combination with each other, or with alternative forms of treatment, like radiation therapy and surgery. The choice of drug and method of administration are determined by the type of disease and the patient's overall health. Some common ways chemotherapy may be given are:

  • Intravenously, where the medication is given through a needle inserted into your vein. This is the most frequently used method of chemotherapy administration.
  • By mouth, in tablet, capsule, or liquid form. Not all anti-cancer drugs can be taken this way because they can be destroyed by stomach acids, or the body cannot absorb them through the lining of the stomach and intestines.
  • By injection, which uses a needle and syringe to administer chemotherapy either subcutaneously or intramuscularly. Subcutaneous injections go just under the skin, while intramuscular injections go through the skin and into the muscle. Methotrexate, a medication widely used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and many types of cancer, can be given intramuscularly and subcutaneously.
  • Intra-arterially, where the drugs are given directly into the artery that supplies blood to the tumor. Intra-arterial chemotherapy is most often used for liver cancer.
  • Intrathecally, where the medication is delivered into the spinal fluid. This type of chemotherapy is used to treat cancers that have spread to the brain or spinal cord.
  • Intrapleurally, where anti-cancer drugs are administered into the space between the lung's outer surface and the inner lining of the chest cavity. Patients with lung cancer may receive this type of chemotherapy.
  • Intravesically, where the medicine is given through a tube that is inserted into the bladder. Intravesical chemotherapy only affects the cells lining the inside of the bladder, so it is often used to treat early-stage bladder cancer.
In the process of killing abnormal cells, chemotherapy drugs can also harm healthy cells. This is why many patients who receive anti-cancer drug treatments experience side effects like fatigue, nausea, hair loss, pain while swallowing, mouth sores, shortness of breath, weight changes, and fertility issues. Keeping track of side effects you experience, along with details like how often they occur or how severe they are, can help your doctor better customize your chemotherapy regimen.

Chemotherapy is a powerful treatment for cancer and some autoimmune disorders, but it may not be able to eliminate the diseases at their advanced stages. Even if this is the case, your doctor may still include it in your treatment plan to help ease symptoms of your condition or prevent the disease from progressing.

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