Chemotherapy is a general term for medications used to destroy or stop the growth of cancer cells. Your child’s treatment plan will use the best medicine or combination of medicines available to most effectively combat your child’s specific type and stage of cancer.
Why Chemotherapy Medicines Are Used
Chemotherapy medicines are given for several reasons:
- To treat cancers that respond well to chemotherapy
- To decrease the size of tumors for easier and safer removal by surgery
- To enhance the cancer-killing effectiveness of other treatments, such as radiation therapy
- To control the cancer and enhance the patient’s quality of life
How Chemotherapy Works
Chemotherapy works by interfering with the ability of cancer cells to divide and duplicate themselves. Chemotherapy can be given through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells all over the body, or it can be delivered directly to specific cancer sites.
Each chemotherapy medicine works to prevent cells from growing, by:
- Preventing the copying of cellular components needed for cells to divide;
- Replacing or eliminating essential enzymes or nutrients the cancer cells need to survive; or
- triggering cells to self-destruct.
Often a combination of drugs will be used, with each medicine attacking the cancer cells in a special way. This decreases the chances that cancer cells will survive, become resistant and continue to grow.
Giving Chemotherapy Medicines to a Patient
Chemotherapy is given in different ways depending on the cancer type and the medicines used.
- Intravenously (IV) – injected into a vein
- Intrathecally (IT) – injected into the spinal canal during a lumbar puncture
- Intramuscular (IM) – injected into a muscle
- Intraperitoneal (IP) – injected into the abdominal cavity
- Intracavitary (IC) – injected into a body cavity
- Subcutaneous (sub.q.) – injected into a port just under the skin
- Oral (PO) – as a pill or a liquid to be swallowed
For many patients, the medical team will surgically install a central venous line (catheter) in a vein in the chest (subcutaneous port) or arm before chemotherapy starts. The line will allow treatments to be given and blood samples taken without being “stuck” with a needle. At the end of the treatment, the central line will be removed.