Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Chemotherapy

What is chemotherapy?
How is chemotherapy administered?
What are some of the chemotherapy drugs and their potential side effects?

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer drugs to treat cancerous cells. Chemotherapy has been used for many years and is one of the most common treatments for cancer. In most cases, chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cell’s ability to grow or reproduce. Different groups of drugs work in different ways to fight cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used alone for some types of cancer or in combination with other treatments such as radiation or surgery. Often, a combination of chemotherapy drugs is used to fight a specific cancer. Certain chemotherapy drugs may be given in a specific order depending on the type of cancer it is being used to treat.

While chemotherapy can be quite effective in treating certain cancers, chemotherapy drugs reach all parts of the body, not just the cancer cells. Because of this range, there may be many side effects during treatment. Being able to anticipate these side effects can help you and your caregivers prepare, and in some cases prevent these symptoms from occurring. 

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How is chemotherapy administered?

Chemotherapy can be given:

  • As a pill to swallow
  • As an injection into the muscle or fat tissue
  • Intravenously (directly to the bloodstream; also called IV)
  • Topically (applied to the skin)
  • Directly into a body cavity

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What are some of the chemotherapy drugs and their potential side effects?

There are more than 50 chemotherapy drugs that are commonly used. The following table gives examples of some chemotherapy drugs and their various names. It lists some of the cancer types but not necessarily all of the cancers for which they are used, and describes various side effects. Side effects may occur just after treatment (days or weeks) or they may occur later (months or years) after the chemotherapy has been given. The side effects listed below do not comprise an all-inclusive list. Other side effects are possible.

As each person’s individual medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his or her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team any/all possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins. You also may obtain more information about chemotherapy by visiting our patient resource libraries.

 

Chemotherapy drug 

Possible side effects (not all side effects are listed - some side effects listed may be short-term; others may be long-term) 

Carboplatin
(Paraplatin)

  • Usually given intravenously (IV)
  • Used for cancers of the ovary, head and neck, and lung
  • Decrease in blood cell counts
  • Hair loss (reversible)
  • Confusion
  • Nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea (usually a short-term side effect occurring the first 24 to 72 hours following treatment)

Cisplatin
(Platinol, Platinol-AQ)

  • Usually given intravenously
  • Used for cancers of the bladder, ovary and testicles
  • Decrease in blood cell counts
  • Allergic reaction, including a rash and/or labored breathing
  • Nausea and vomiting that usually occurs for 24 hours or longer
  • Ringing in ears and hearing loss
  • Fluctuations in blood electrolytes
  • Kidney damage
 

Cyclophosphamide
(Cytoxan, Neosar)

  • Can be given intravenously or orally
  • Used for lymphoma, breast cancer and ovarian carcinoma 
  • Decrease in blood cell counts
  • Nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain
  • Decreased appetite
  • Hair loss (reversible)
  • Bladder damage
  • Fertility impairment
  • Lung or heart damage (with high doses)
  • Secondary malignancies (rare)
 

Doxorubicin
(Adriamycin)

  • Given intravenously
  • Used for breast cancer, lymphoma and multiple myeloma
  • Decrease in blood cell counts
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Hair loss (reversible)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Heart damage
 

Etoposide
(VePesid)

  • Can be given intravenously or orally
  • Used for cancers of the lung, testicles, leukemia and lymphoma
  • Decrease in blood cell counts
  • Hair loss (reversible)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Allergic reaction
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Low blood pressure (during administration)
  • Decreased appetite
  • Diarrhea and abdominal pain
  • Bronchospasm
  • Flu-like symptoms

Fluorouracil
(5-FU)

  • Given intravenously
  • Used for cancers of the colon, breast, stomach, and head and neck
  • Decrease in blood cell counts
  • Diarrhea
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Photosensitivity
  • Dry skin

Gemcitabine
(Gemzar)

  • Given intravenously
  • Used for cancers of the pancreas, breast, ovary and lung
  • Decrease in blood cell counts
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever and flu-like symptoms
  • Rash

Irinotecan
(Camptosar)

  • Given intravenously
  • Used for cancers of the colon and rectum
 
  • Decrease in blood cell counts
  • Diarrhea
  • Hair loss (reversible)

Methotrexate
(Folex, Mexate, Amethopterin)

  • May be given intravenously, intrathecally (into the spinal column) or orally
  • Used for cancers of the breast, lung, blood, bone and lymph system
  • Decrease in blood cell counts
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Skin rashes and photosensitivity
  • Dizziness, headache or drowsiness
  • Kidney damage (with a high-dose therapy)
  • Liver damage
  • Hair loss (reversible)
  • Seizures

Paclitaxel
(Taxol)

  • Given intravenously
  • Used with cancers of the breast, ovary and lung 
  • Decrease in blood cell counts
  • Allergic reaction
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Change in taste
  • Thin or brittle hair
  • Joint pain (short term)
  • Numbness or tingling in the fingers or toes

Topotecan
(Hycamtin)

  • Given intravenously
  • Used for cancers of the ovary and lung 
  • Decrease in blood cell counts
  • Diarrhea
  • Hair loss (reversible)
  • Nausea and vomiting

Vincristine
(Oncovin, Vincasar PFS)

  • Usually given intravenously
  • Used for leukemia and lymphoma 
  • Numbness or tingling in the fingers or toes
  • Weakness
  • Loss of reflexes
  • Jaw pain
  • Hair loss (reversible)
  • Constipation or abdominal cramping

Vinblastine
(Velban)

  • Given intravenously
  • Used for lymphoma and cancers of the testis and head and neck
  • Decrease in blood cell counts
  • Hair loss (reversible)
  • Constipation or abdominal cramping
  • Jaw pain
  • Numbness or tingling in the fingers or toes

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