Chemotherapy uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. The drugs go around your body in the bloodstream.
When do you have chemotherapy?
You might have:
- chemotherapy together with radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy)
- chemotherapy on its own
The treatment you have depends on several things including the size of your cancer and whether it has spread (the stage).
If you have chemotherapy on its own, you usually have 2 or more chemotherapy drugs together. Using a combination of drugs can work better than using one drug on its own, but there are more side effects.
Chemotherapy with radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy)
You may have chemotherapy and radiotherapy at the same time if the cancer has grown into your
Some chemotherapy drugs make cancer cells more sensitive to radiotherapy, so doctors use them together. Chemoradiotherapy is quite a tough treatment to get through. You will have some tests to see if you’re fit enough to cope with the side effects. If chemoradiotherapy is not suitable for you, you may have the radiotherapy on its own.
Chemotherapy on its own
You might have some chemotherapy on its own before you start chemoradiotherapy. This is usually for larger nasopharyngeal cancers, generally stage 3 or 4A. This is called induction or neo adjuvant chemotherapy. The extra chemotherapy helps to control the cancer and reduces the risk of it coming back.
Having chemotherapy over a longer period does cause added side effects and may only be suitable for some people.
If the cancer has spread to another part of your body (metastatic cancer) or has come back after treatment (recurrence), you may have chemotherapy on its own. You usually have a combination of chemotherapy drugs. This may shrink the cancer and help to control any symptoms the cancer is causing.
Which chemotherapy drugs do you have?
With chemoradiotherapy, you have a chemotherapy drug called cisplatin alongside the radiotherapy. You may have the cisplatin once a week or once every 3 weeks. If you can’t have cisplatin, for example due to the side effects, you may have carboplatin instead.
If you have chemotherapy on its own before starting chemoradiotherapy, you usually have cisplatin and another chemotherapy drug called gemcitabine. You have chemotherapy as cycles of treatment. This means you have the drugs and then a rest period to allow your body to recover. Each cycle is 3 weeks. You usually have 3 cycles of chemotherapy before starting chemoradiotherapy.
You usually have up to 6 cycles of cisplatin and gemcitabine for nasopharyngeal cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. Other chemotherapy drugs that doctors may use include:
How do you have chemotherapy?
You have the treatment through a drip into your arm or hand. A nurse puts a small tube (a cannula) into one of your veins and connects the drip to it.
You might need a central line. This is a long plastic tube that gives the drugs into a large vein, either in your chest or through a vein in your arm. It stays in while you’re having treatment, which may be for a few months.
Where do you have chemotherapy?
You usually have treatment into your bloodstream at the cancer day clinic. You might sit in a chair for a few hours so it’s a good idea to take things in to do. For example, newspapers, books or electronic devices can all help to pass the time. You can usually bring a friend or family member with you.
You have some types of chemotherapy over several days. You might be able to have some drugs through a small portable pump that you take home.
For some types of chemotherapy you have to stay in a hospital ward. This could be overnight or for a couple of days.
Some hospitals may give certain chemotherapy treatments to you at home. Your doctor or nurse can tell you more about this.
Clare Disney (nurse): Hello, my name is Clare and this is a cancer day unit.
So when you arrive and you’ve reported into with the receptionist, one of the nurses will call you through when your treatment is ready, sit you down and go through all the treatment with you.
Morning, Iris. My name is Clare. I am the nurse who is going to be looking after you today. We’re going to start by putting a cannula in the back of your hand and giving you some anti sickness medication. And then I am going to come back to you and talk through the chemotherapy with you and the possible side effects you may experience throughout your treatment. Is that okay?
Before you have each treatment you’ll need to have a blood test to check your bloods are okay. And you’ll also be reviewed by one of the doctors to make sure you’re fit and well for your treatment. Sometimes you’ll have the blood test taken on the day of your treatment; other times you’ll have it the day before your treatment when you see the doctor.
Each chemotherapy is made up for each individual patient, depending on the type of cancer they have and where it is and depending their height, weight and blood results.
So, depending on where your cancer is some people have their chemotherapy drug, their cancer drug by drip, some will have an injection and other people will have tablets.
So, Iris, your chemotherapy is going to be given to you in what we call cycles and the cycles are given every three weeks for a period of six cycles. So, you will be coming in for approximately five months for your chemotherapy.
Depending on where your cancer is and what type of cancer you have will be dependent on how often you come in for treatment. An example of a treatment cycle would be for you to come in on Day 1, Day 8 and Day 15 then to have a week’s break before you come back again for Day 1 treatment.
Depending on the type of treatment that you are having we will also give you some anti sickness tablets to take alongside your chemotherapy and also some drugs to prevent any reactions if that’s appropriate.
All chemotherapy is given over different time periods so it’s best to check with your nurse about how long you are likely to be in the unit for. This can range from anything up to an hour to an all day treatment slot so please be prepared to bring along some bits to keep you occupied, such as books and music.
So, before you go home it’s important to make sure you have got the tablets you need to go home with your anti sickness medications and any other symptom control tablets that you may require. Also, to make sure that you’ve got the telephone numbers for the oncology unit to phone if you have a temperature or you are experiencing any other symptoms at home that you need to ask advice about.
So, please make sure when you leave the unit that you’ve got all the information you require and if you’ve got any questions at all don’t hesitate to ask the nurse who will be able to answer them for you.
Before your next cycle of treatment you will come in and see the doctor in the clinic room, you’ll have a blood test and an examination to make sure you are fit and well for treatment you will then come back the following day or later on that week for treatment.
Before you start chemotherapy
You need to have blood tests to make sure it’s safe to start treatment. You usually have these the day before or on the day you start treatment. You have blood tests before each round or cycle of treatment.
Common chemotherapy side effects include:
- feeling sick
- loss of appetite
- losing weight
- feeling very tired
- an increased risk of infection
- bleeding and bruising easily
- diarrhoea or constipation
- hair loss
Side effects depend on:
- which drug or drugs you have
- how much of each drug you have (the dose)
- if you have it with other treatment such as radiotherapy
- how your body reacts
Tell your treatment team about any side effects that you have.
Most side effects only last for a few days or so. Your treatment team can help to manage any side effects that you have.
Dietary or herbal supplements and chemotherapy
Let your doctors know if you:
- take any supplements
- have been prescribed anything by alternative or complementary therapy practitioners
It’s unclear how some nutritional or herbal supplements might interact with chemotherapy. They could be harmful.
When you go home
Chemotherapy can be difficult to cope with. Tell your doctor or nurse about any problems or side effects that you have. The nurse will give you telephone numbers to call if you have any problems at home.