Drug treatment for cancer is called chemotherapy. The job of chemotherapy is to destroy cancer cells, including those that may have spread beyond the main tumor. Unlike surgery or radiation, most types of chemotherapy, or “chemo,” don’t target a particular tumor or a particular part of the body, although there are some newer “designer drugs” being developed that seek out and destroy cancer cells specifically. Most forms of chemotherapy attack all rapidly dividing cells, and cancer cells fit that description.
Although cancer cells divide rapidly, other cells do too, including the ones in the lining of your stomach and the ones that grow hair on your head. (That’s why chemotherapy patients often lose their hair.) Because the drugs affect all types of cells in your body, you’re likely to feel worse after a round of chemotherapy — at least temporarily. Some drugs have worse side effects than others.
Some people need chemotherapy for only a short time, but others may need treatment off and on for years. The drugs might be able to cure your cancer completely, or they might only be able to give you extra time. It all depends on what kind of cancer you have, how advanced the cancer is and how well it responds to treatment.
In many cases, chemotherapy is only part of the overall treatment plan. It might be used to shrink a tumor before surgery or radiation, or it might be used after surgery or radiation to destroy any remaining cancer cells. It might also be used alongside radiation or biological drugs (immunotherapy) to improve the effectiveness of treatment.
What Are the Different Types of Chemotherapy Drugs?
Doctors have many options when it comes to chemotherapy, and that list is growing all the time. In April 2009, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) reported that more than 800 new cancer medicines and vaccines were being tested or awaiting approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some drugs are more powerful than others, some have worse side effects, and some work better against particular types of cancer. Your treatment will depend on many factors, including the type of cancer you have, how advanced the disease is, and your overall health. You may take more than one chemotherapy drug at once, and your treatment may change over time. Your doctor will always try to find a balance between treating the disease and maintaining your quality of life.
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