Chemotherapy: What is It and What Are The Side Effects?

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Chemotherapy uses medicine to destroy cancer cells. Unlike normal healthy cells, cancer cells grow and divide quickly. Chemotherapy (also called chemo) works by stopping or slowing the growth of those cells. Chemotherapy can:

  • Make a tumor smaller before surgery or radiation therapy
  • Destroy cancer cells that may remain after surgery or radiation therapy
  • Help radiation therapy and biological therapy work better
  • Destroy cancer cells that have come back or spread to other parts of the body (metastasize)

More than half of all cancer patients receive chemotherapy treatment. Sometimes, chemotherapy is the only cancer treatment a doctor will recommend. But more often, it is used along with surgery, radiation therapy or biological therapy.

There are different kinds of chemotherapy. And everyone's body reacts differently. As a result, how a caregiver's elderly parent feels during treatment may be very different from other people who have gone through chemo.

Types of chemotherapy include:

  • An IV (intravenously)
  • A shot into a muscle or other part of the body
  • A pill or a liquid that is swallowed
  • A cream that is rubbed on the skin

Chemo Treatment Schedule

Treatment schedules for chemotherapy vary widely. How often, how long and how many chemotherapy sessions are given depends. Factors that a doctor uses to determine how often a patient needs chemotherapy include: the type of cancer, how advanced it is, the type of chemotherapy being used and how the body reacts to chemotherapy. Your loved one may get treatment every day, every week or every month.

The treatment period is followed by a period of rest when your parent won't get chemotherapy. This rest period gives the body a chance to build healthy new cells. Your doctor or nurse will talk with you and your elderly parent about a treatment schedule. Ask for a written copy of it, as well.

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Each person and treatment is different, so it is not always possible to tell how your love one will feel. Some people feel well enough to keep their normal schedules. Others chemotherapy patients may experience nausea, vomiting, tiredness or hair loss. Today many side effects can be prevented or controlled. Talk with your doctor to learn what side effects your elderly parent may have and how to manage them. Healthy cells usually recover after chemotherapy, so most side effects gradually go away.


The Oncology Institute of Hope and Innovation provides state-of-the-art medical care to cancer patients. Comprehensive and realistic treatment is tailored to every person's unique needs and decided upon in partnership with the patients and their families.

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1 Comments

I strongly suggest that, if the surgeon removed all of the cancer and chemo is recommended as a precaution, that an elderly person think long and hard about putting their body through this. My mom had cancerous tumors successfully removed from her colon and recovered quickly from surgery. She underwent three chemo sessions, one every two weeks, and it very nearly killed her. She is highly sensitive to any kind of medication and has serious side-effects. So, I strongly advise elderly patients to think long and hard about undergoing chemo and do not let the doctors scare you into it.