Chemotherapy / Immunotherapy

The Medical Oncology Department at the Schwab Family Cancer Center plays a vital role in the treatment of patients diagnosed with cancer. In the case where you need total body (systemic) control of your cancer, your medical oncologist will prescribe chemotherapy or immunotherapy. These treatments may be delivered as a standalone option or in combination with other treatment options like surgery and/or radiation therapy. At the Schwab Family Cancer Center, a pharmacist, registered nurse, social worker, and dietician are all part of your treatment team, along with your medical oncologist, when you receive chemotherapy.

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What is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is a type of treatment that uses medication or a combination of medications to destroy cancer cells. The anti-cancer drugs you receive prevents the affected cells from growing and multiplying out of control. Chemotherapy may be used to slow the growth of cancer, reduce the likelihood it will return, or work to cure it completely. Additionally, chemotherapy can be helpful in shrinking tumors to reduce pain, and resolve other common problems associated with cancer.

Methods of Chemotherapy

An oncologist will consider your personal preferences as well as your type of cancer and an overall state of health before recommending a specific method of chemotherapy delivery. The most common ones include:

  • Injection: You receive a shot containing chemotherapy ingredients just beneath your skin in the fatty area of your stomach, arm, or leg. The shot can also be given in the muscle of an arm, hip, or thigh.
  • Intra-arterial: Using a catheter or needle, the doctor or nurse directs the chemotherapy drugs into the artery responsible for causing the cancerous growth.
  • Intraperitoneal: You receive the chemotherapy drugs through a port previously installed by your doctor or during surgery. The drugs go directly into your peritoneal cavity, which includes organs such as the intestines, liver, and stomach.
  • Intravenous: You receive the chemotherapy drugs through a needle inserted directly into a vein.
  • Oral: This involves swallowing a pill containing cancer-killing properties
  • Topical: Topical chemotherapy is a cream that is rubbed directly onto the patient’s skin.

Frequency of Chemotherapy

There is not just one schedule for chemotherapy treatments. The frequency and duration of the treatment depends on the type of cancer you have, how much it has progressed, genetic make-up, how long it takes to recover from each session, and several other individual factors. It’s common for you to receive chemotherapy in cycles at SFCC. That means you have a treatment period followed by a rest period. In a four-week cycle, for example, you might receive treatment for one week and then rest for three weeks before starting the next cycle or may receive treatment weekly.

The oncologist will review your individual plan of care. Then the nurse will explain the schedule, the possible side effects, as well as provide written information to take home.

The length of time for chemotherapy treatment varies depending on your individual factors and response to treatment.


Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy kills or slows the growth of cancer cells. Chemotherapy can also kill healthy cells that normally grow quickly. Prime examples include scalp and body hair, intestines, and the lining of the mouth. This explains why side effects such as hair loss, nausea, vomiting, and sores in the mouth are common in people going through chemotherapy. Other possible side effects include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Anemia
  • Bruising and bleeding
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Edema
  • Mental confusion
  • Fertility issues
  • Concentration and memory problems
  • Nerve pain
  • Bladder and urinary problems
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Sexual health problems
  • Widespread pain

Extreme fatigue is common as well. We recommend having someone drive you to and from your appointment for this reason, but it is not required. It’s also a good idea to plan to rest on the day you receive chemotherapy as well as the day after. Arranging for help with household chores and childcare in advance will help you get the rest your body needs.

What is Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is treatment that uses certain parts of a person’s immune system to fight diseases such as cancer. This can be done in a couple of ways:

  • Stimulating your own immune system to work harder or smarter to attack cancer cells
  • Giving your immune system components, such as man-made immune system proteins

Some types of immunotherapy may also be called biologic therapy or biotherapy.

In the last few decades, immunotherapy has become an important part of treating some types of cancer. Newer types of immune treatments are now being studied, and they’ll impact how we treat cancer in the future.

Immunotherapy includes treatments that work in different ways. Some boost your body’s immune system in a very general way. Others help train the immune system to attack cancer cells specifically.

Immunotherapy works better for some types of cancer than for others. It’s used by itself for some of these cancers, but for others it seems to work better when used with other types of treatment.

Types of Cancer Immunotherapy

The main types of immunotherapy now being used to treat cancer include:

  • Monoclonal antibodies: These are man-made versions of immune system proteins. Antibodies can be very useful in treating cancer because they can be designed to attack a very specific part of a cancer cell.
  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors: These drugs basically take the ‘brakes’ off the immune system, which helps it recognize and attack cancer cells.
  • Cancer vaccines: Vaccines are substances put into the body to start an immune response against certain diseases. We usually think of them as being given to healthy people to help prevent infections. But some vaccines can help prevent or treat cancer.
  • Other, non-specific immunotherapies: These treatments boost the immune system in a general way, but this can still help the immune system attack cancer cells.

We encourage you to understand all options when it comes to cancer treatment and to ask questions about anything you don’t understand.

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