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Systemic Therapy (Chemotherapy)

Chemotherapy is a kind of drug therapy also known as systemic therapy. Chemotherapy (often called simply “chemo”) is a medication that destroys cancer cells.

Chemotherapy is called systemic therapy because the drug travels through blood to cells all over the body, to your whole "system".

About

Chemotherapy is administered at all BC Cancer regional cancer centres and in community hospitals and clinics. No matter where you are as a person living in BC, if you have a diagnosis of cancer, you will receive the same treatment anywhere in the province.

About this treatment

Chemotherapy is a large group of drugs. There are over 100 different chemotherapy drugs that we call cytotoxic, because they kill cells. 

Other types of drugs such as hormonal therapy, biological or targeted therapy are also used to kill cancer cells as well. 

Chemotherapy travels throughout the body by the bloodstream. It can affect both cancer and normal cells. 

Some cancers need only one kind of chemotherapy drug to treat them. Others might need a combination. One or more chemotherapy drugs may be used to treat a cancer.

Patient video

For an introduction to chemotherapy and to help you prepare if you do experience side effects, please see our video: 

Prepare

What happens during chemotherapy treatment?

Here is a brief description of what happens during the administration of chemotherapy, to help you prepare for your treatment. 

The goals of chemotherapy are to:

  • eliminate the tumour
  • shrink the tumour
  • prevent cancer from spreading
  • relieve symptoms from cancer, such as pain. 

Chemotherapy can be administered:

  • intravenously (IV)
  • by pill
  • through injection
  • through an intravenous (IV) infusion pump

Intravenous

If you are going to be given chemotherapy intravenously, you will be given an appointment date and time, to be confirmed closer to the time. A registered nurse will administer the chemotherapy . The nurse will also review your treatment plan and the potential side effects.

Treatment can take several minutes, to several hours, up to a full day, depending on the protocol. 

IV infusion pump

Some patients go home with a continuous chemotherapy IV infusion pump. 

Pills

If your therapy is to be given in the form of pills, you will be given an appointment to meet the pharmacist who will give you your prescription, review the side effects of the chemotherapy pills, and reinforce who and when to call for medical advice.

Pregnancy Assessment

Why you should not get pregnant during cancer treatment

In many circumstances, it is important you do not get pregnant while you are getting cancer treatment. Cancer treatments, like radiation, chemotherapy, or other systemic therapy can damage your eggs, an embryo (very early part of pregnancy) or a fetus (unborn baby).  

If you are having treatment and able to impregnate your partner, it is important they do not become pregnant as cancer treatments can damage sperm and impact a fetus and health of the child-bearing person.

If you get pregnant during cancer treatment, you may have a miscarriage (fetus or embryo dies) or the baby may have birth defects (the baby's brain or body may be affected). 

If you get pregnant, this may impact the types of tests and treatments available for your cancer. Some tests and treatments can harm an unborn baby or embryo. 

Also, we do not know how some newer cancer treatments affect unborn babies. These treatments may harm an unborn baby.
What could happen if I get pregnant during treatment? 

No. It is very important to talk with your health care provider about impact of your specific treatment and if you have any questions or concerns.

 

If you are a person that is able to get pregnant, your doctor may order a blood test before you start treatment if you think it's possible you could be pregnant. This blood test will check to see if you are pregnant. 

If you think that you could be pregnant any time during your treatment, please tell your health care team right away. They will ask you to do a blood or urine pregnancy test.

 


Side effects

There are many side effects in chemotherapy, but no one patient experiences all side effects. Your nurse or pharmacist will discuss the specific side effects related to your medications. 

Managing symptoms & side effects

We have produced health info on managing symptoms and side effects that you might experience, such as hair loss, loss of appetite, fatigue, and so on. 

You might also get help from a pain and managment clinic in one of our regional centres. 

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