What is Chemotherapy and How Does it Work?


Most people are familiar with chemotherapy to treat cancer, but they’re not sure how it works or why doctors choose it over other methods of treatment. If you have cancer, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy by itself or in combination with radiation therapy, surgery, or other types of drugs to fight cancer. Chemotherapy contains drugs that kill cancer cells and keeps them from multiplying and spreading to other areas of your body.

Forms of Chemotherapy and How You Receive It

Chemotherapy, often called chemo, comes in the form of a pill, a shot, or through an intravenous (IV) tube that delivers the drugs directly to your bloodstream. You will go to a hospital or clinic for regular appointments to receive your chemo. It’s called an infusion when you receive chemo drugs through an IV. Your oncologist at UPMC Western Maryland, who is a doctor that treats cancer, will decide on a chemotherapy schedule based on several individual factors.

How Oncologist Determine your Chemo Treatment:

  • Your specific type of cancer
  • The severity and stage of your cancer
  • Whether you’re receiving cancer treatment for the first time or you have had it in the past
  • Your overall health, including whether you have other significant diseases such as diabetes, liver, heart, or kidney disease

You might receive chemo every day for a set time, weekly, or monthly depending on how your oncologist evaluates the above factors. This is true even if you have had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor since cancer cells can remain in your body and spread beyond the point of origination.

What Do Chemotherapy Drugs Do?

As mentioned above, chemo drugs kill cancer cells and keep them from growing and spreading. However, they can perform different functions depending on the type of drug, your type of cancer, and other individual factors. Some chemotherapy drugs kill and slow the growth of cancer cells only while others destroy both healthy cells and cancerous cells. Another function of chemo drugs is preventing tumors from developing the blood vessels that enable them to multiply at a faster rate. Chemo can also attack the genes of a cancer cell so it can’t develop into a new tumor.

Determining the Effectiveness of Your Chemotherapy

While you’re going through chemotherapy, your oncologist at UPMC Western Maryland will observe you for indications that the treatment is effective or that it’s time to try something else. Blood tests, X-rays, physical exams, and your own report are the most efficient ways of knowing how well a certain chemo drug works for you. It’s always possible that you may need to switch to a different chemo drug or use alternate methods of treatment such as radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and/or hormone therapy.

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