Chemotherapy (pronounced: kee-mo-THER-uh-pee), often just called chemo, is the use of medications to treat cancer. Cancer is a disease that occurs when cells in the body develop abnormally and grow in an uncontrolled way. Cancer cells divide and grow rapidly; chemotherapy works by interfering with this, preventing the cancer from spreading — and sometimes even curing the disease by helping to get rid of all the cancer cells in the body.
A pediatric oncologist (pronounced: on-KAH-luh-jist), a doctor who treats cancer in kids and teens, will work with other health care professionals to decide on the type of chemotherapy treatment that's best for a cancer patient.
The many different ways that teens are given chemo medications include:
Chemotherapy can be used alone to treat cancer or in combination with other cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy or surgery. Radiation therapy directs high-energy X-rays at the body to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors (a group or clump of abnormally growing cells). Surgery helps to remove larger tumors, making the job of the chemotherapy easier. The kind of therapy someone receives is based on the type of cancer that person has and whether it has spread to areas outside where it started.
Most cancers in teens are treated with more than one chemotherapy drug; doctors refer to this as combination chemotherapy. For a lot of people, combination therapy improves the chances that their cancer will be cured — the cancer has less chance of building up a resistance to a combination of chemo drugs than it does to just one drug. (Resistance means that the cancer no longer reacts to that medication.) Another important strategy in treating cancer is giving a person repeated courses of chemo. This helps prevent the cancer cells from regrowing.
People who feel nervous about receiving chemo can ask about touring the hospital or clinic before treatment begins to help feel more at ease. They can also join a support group for teens and families coping with cancer.
A person can receive chemotherapy treatments at a hospital, cancer treatment center, doctor's office, or at home. Most teens receive theirs at a clinic or hospital and go home afterward. Sometimes, though, people who are getting chemo treatments may need to stay in the hospital so doctors can watch for side effects.
Some people receive chemotherapy every day; others receive it every week or every month. Doctors use the word "cycles" to describe chemotherapy treatments because the treatment periods are mixed in with periods of rest.
While chemotherapy works to treat cancer, normal cells — like hair cells, which also divide rapidly — can be affected, too. This can cause side effects, which are usually temporary and are different from person to person, depending on the person's age, the type of treatment, and where the cancer is located. There are medicines to help with many side effects of chemo, so speak your doctor about any problems you might be having.
Some of the side effects of chemo are:
Because chemotherapy can cause long-term side effects (known as late effects), it is critical that people who have had cancer continue to get routine medical care even after their cancer has been cured. Depending on their treatment, people who have had cancer should get regular heart and lung exams, as well as blood tests for thyroid function.
It's important for anyone who's receiving chemo to tell nurses or doctors about side effects so they can help treat the problem. Doctors who treat people using chemotherapy aren't just working to cure cancer; they also want their patients to be as comfortable as possible while they're having chemo.
Chemotherapy can be frightening to think about. If you're one of the many people whose cancer is being treated with chemotherapy, your doctors, nurses, and other members of the cancer treatment team are there to help you and to answer questions before, during, and after chemotherapy.
You can also look for support from friends and family. Your friends make you feel good when you're healthy — so surrounding yourself with friends when you're sick is sure to be a pick-me-up. Phone, email, Skype, etc., are great ways to keep in touch, even if you're having a bad day. If you're afraid that your friends will feel weird or embarrassed, talk to a parent or nurse about some ideas on how to cope.
In addition to dealing with the many emotions you'll feel, you have to manage the physical stuff, too. Try these tips for staying comfortable and healthy during treatment:
Once you've finished chemo, it's still important to visit the doctor for follow-up appointments. During these checkups, the doctor will want to know how you're feeling and whether you're experiencing any side effects. He or she will also check to see whether there are any signs of the cancer coming back.
Undergoing treatment for cancer can be scary, time-consuming, and sometimes painful. But for teens who beat cancer, there may be a silver lining — cancer survivors are often tougher, have a greater appreciation of what life has to offer, and possess the courage and determination it takes to follow their dreams.
Talk with your doctors, nurses, family, and friends if you have any questions or worries. Though going through treatment for cancer can be tough, you are not alone!
Reviewed by: Lisa Wray, MD
Date reviewed: February 2014
|Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation Candlelighters provides support and information for children and teens with cancer.|
|OncoLink OncoLink provides patients and professionals with cancer information, support, and resources.|
|American Cancer Society The American Cancer Society is the nationwide community-based voluntary health organization dedicated to preventing cancer, saving lives and diminishing suffering from cancer through research, education, advocacy, and service. Call:(800) ACS-2345|
|Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer A unique foundation that evolved from a young cancer patient's front-yard lemonade stand to a nationwide fundraising movement to find a cure for pediatric cancer.|
|National Cancer Institute (NCI) NCI provides detailed information about cancer research, various kinds of cancer, and living with cancer. Call: (800) 4-CANCER|
|Leukemia & Lymphoma Society The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is dedicated to funding blood-cancer research, education, and patient services. The Society's mission is to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease, and myeloma, and to improve the quality of life of patients and their families. Call: (914) 949-5213|
|Cancer Basics Get the basics on cancer and cancer treatments in this article.|
|Radiation Therapy More than half of all people with cancer are treated with radiation therapy. Get the facts on radiation therapy, including what it is, what to expect, and how to cope with side effects.|
|My Friend Has Cancer. How Can I Help? It's hard to know how to respond when someone you love — someone your own age — is diagnosed with cancer. Here are some thoughts on dealing with feelings and helping your friend.|
|Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a disease in which cancer cells form in a person's lymphatic system and start to grow uncontrollably.|
|Cancer: Readjusting to Home and School If you've just finished a long hospital stay, you may have questions about reconnecting with friends and family. Get answers in this article for teens.|
|Dealing With Cancer It's unusual for teens to have cancer, but it can happen. The good news is that most will survive and return to their everyday lives. Learn about how to cope if you or someone you know has cancer.|
|Cancer Center Visit our Cancer Center for teens to get information and advice on treating and coping with cancer.|
|Types of Cancer Teens Get While cancer is rare in teens, some types are more likely to affect young people. Learn about these types of cancer, including warning signs, symptoms, and treatments.|
What to expect when coming to Akron Children's
For healthcare providers and nurses
Residency & Fellowships, Medical Students, Nursing and Allied Health
For prospective employees and career-seekers
Our online community that provides inspirational stories and helpful information.