Chemotherapy is the general term for any treatment involving the use of chemical agents to stop cancer cells from growing. Chemotherapy can eliminate cancer cells great distances from the original cancer. As a result, chemotherapy is considered a systemic treatment, meaning it treats cells throughout the whole body.

At Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center, chemotherapy is administered in our Infusion Center.

How Chemotherapy Works

Chemotherapy is designed to kill cancer cells. It can be administered through a vein, injected into a body cavity or delivered orally in the form of a pill. The method of delivery depends on which drug is used.

The unfortunate part of chemotherapy is that it cannot tell the difference between a cancer cell and some healthy cells. It eliminates not only the fast-growing cancer cells but also the other fast-growing cells in your body, including hair and blood cells.

Chemotherapy Dose and Schedule

Your oncologist will develop a treatment plan precisely designed for you, based on your type of cancer, its stage of advancement, and your overall health. It will consist of specific chemotherapy agents, at specific doses and intervals. These are called your scheduled cycles. Generally, treatments are given daily, weekly, or monthly. Your oncologist will help you determine the most effective treatment schedule for you.

The goal is to make your chemotherapy as effective, timely, and problem-free as possible. But while your chemotherapy treatment works to fight your cancer, it also can cause side effects such as a lowered white blood cell count. A low white blood cell count means your immune system isn't as strong as it could be, which can increase your risk of infection. It also can require your doctor to change your dose or schedule of your chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy Side Effects

An undesirable consequence of chemotherapy affecting your body (not related to your cancer) is referred to as a complication of treatment, or a side effect.

Some common side effects of chemotherapy are:

  • Low white blood cell count
  • Low red blood cell count
  • Low platelet count
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Hair loss
  • Fatigue

Side effects may be temporary and uncomfortable; others can cause dose reductions, treatment delays or even be life-threatening.

Fortunately, significant progress has been made in the development of "proactive" therapies that help manage the side effects of chemotherapy.