What is chemotherapy and biotherapy?

Your personalized treatment plan may include chemotherapy and biotherapy. Chemotherapy is the process of treating and eliminating cancer cells through chemical substances and medicines, sometimes called “anticancer” drugs. Chemotherapy may be used as the primary treatment to stop cancer cells from dividing or growing. It can also be used to help shrink a tumor prior to surgery or radiation treatment, or to destroy any small groups of cells that may remain following surgery.

Biotherapy is similar to chemotherapy in using targeted medicine to improve the immune system, allowing it to better fight cancer and infection. In addition to limiting the spread of cancer, biotherapy drugs can also reduce some of the side effects of cancer and further improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatments

When is chemotherapy treatment used?

Chemotherapy treatment is one of the most common tools used to fight cancer. It can be used to help shrink a tumor before surgery or radiation treatment. It can also be used after surgery to destroy any cancerous cells that may remain after a tumor is removed.

Chemotherapy is given in repeating “cycles.” The length of time between cycles and the total number of cycles to be given is determined by each individual treatment plan.

Chemotherapy Drugs

Chemotherapy drugs are most often given intravenously—by IV. Chemotherapy pills can also be used to treat specific types of cancer. Sometimes, your doctor will recommend an implanted portacath, or port, for IV treatments. Ports help make sure no chemotherapy leaks out into the surrounding tissue. Ports spare the arm veins and may make getting the medication easier, especially if there will be multiple treatments over a long period of time.

When is biotherapy used?

Biotherapy can be used in combination with chemotherapy treatment. It can make chemo medicines more effective. Biotherapy, like immunotherapy, can be used alone and works to strengthen the immune system response. Like chemotherapy, biotherapy is usually given in cycles.

Your Team at Intermountain Cancer Center

Every patient and every cancer is different. Every treatment plan is also different, based on national guidelines and your specific pathology. Our chemotherapy physicians work closely with your surgical and radiation physicians in order to find the best solution for your cancer treatment. This team approach leads to a better chance at survival while reducing the side effects and emotional burden of cancer treatment.

What to expect during chemotherapy

When you get to the infusion clinic for your chemotherapy treatment, you will be weighed and have blood drawn to make sure you are healthy enough for the treatment. Taking your weight allows the hospital to mix the correct dose of medication. You’ll need to allow some time for the dose to be mixed, along with time for the treatment itself.

During Treatment

It can be helpful to think of your infusion as an experience similar to a long flight: You’d bring snacks, stay hydrated, and wear comfortable clothing for that. It’s nice to do the same when you receive cancer treatment.


Stay Hydrated

Fluids of any kind will help your body process the medicine. Hydration can also help with symptoms of dry mouth.

Bring Food

Since you’ll be in the infusion clinic for some time, you can bring snacks or a meal to keep your energy up.

Get Comfortable

Your infusion will most likely take place in a reclining chair. Be sure to wear clothes you are comfortable sitting in for a few hours.

Bring a Friend

When possible, having a loved one with you can help the time pass more quickly. They can also help you remember details about your treatment.

Keep Busy

It can be nice to have activities that take your mind off the treatment, like a tablet or smartphone (and charger!) or books and magazines.

Ask Questions

If anything is unclear, ask your nurse. You can bring a notebook or use the recording app on your phone to help you remember details

Effects of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy drugs work to kill growing cancer cells and stop them from spreading. However, chemotherapy medications can also harm normal healthy cells, including those found in our nervous system, bones, mouth, stomach and throat, and hair follicles.

Side effects from chemotherapy are usually temporary and go away once the treatment ends. However, knowing what to expect can help you and your loved ones prepare.

Common Physical Side Effects

Depending on your treatment, you may lose your hair. This is one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy. While it is only a cosmetic change, it can be difficult to deal with emotionally, especially for women. It can help to remember it is only temporary. Wigs, hats, and scarves can all disguise hair loss. Ask your provider about options that may aid in avoiding hair loss.

Another common symptom is changes to your nerves and muscles. You may find yourself more weak, sore, or achy. Loss of balance, shaking, or tingling is also normal. These changes to your nervous system and muscles will improve over time. However, it may take up to one year following the conclusion of your treatment. Be patient with yourself as your body heals and recovers.

As chemotherapy drugs leave your body, they may cause some discomfort or damage to the bladder and kidneys. The color or smell of your urine may change, and you may experience more frequent or more painful urination. In some cases, it may be difficult to urinate or have a bowel movement at all. You can limit the impact to your digestive system by drinking lots of liquids. Be sure to keep your medical team up to date on all effects, too.

Due to the nature of chemotherapy drugs, your reproductive organs may also undergo changes. Both men and women may experience infertility during treatment, so if you are considering having children in the future you may want to talk to your doctor about banking sperm or harvesting eggs prior to treatment.

Other Side Effects

Chemotherapy treatments can also be overwhelming mentally and emotionally. You may find it difficult to process or remember things, which can be frustrating to both you and your family. 

Your doctor, nurses, and other caregivers have the resources to help you and your family manage side effects resulting from your chemotherapy. And while there may be negative symptoms, chemotherapy has been proven to be highly effective in killing cancer, helping you live a longer, healthier life.

Nutrition During Chemotherapy Treatment

Loss of Smell, Taste, and Appetite

One of the side effects of chemotherapy treatment may be changes to your sense of smell and taste and a decrease in appetite. You may find that many foods seem to have less taste. Other foods, especially meat or other high-protein foods, may taste bitter or metallic. You may also experience nausea or have soreness in your mouth and gums that may make it difficult to eat.

What You Can Do

  • Despite these side effects it is crucial to provide your body with the nutrients it needs to recover. Try to find flavors and foods that still appeal to you.
  • Rather than eating three large meals a day, instead try to eat five or six smaller meals.
  • If you experience an aversion to red meat, try substituting poultry, eggs, milk, cheese, or fish instead. You can also try marinating meat in fruit juices, wine, Italian dressing, sweet-and-sour-sauce, or other sauces. Ginger or mint are good seasonings to use, as both can help decrease nausea.
  • If you struggle with nausea, try to limit the smell of cooking food in your home. Instead, try meals that are served cold or at room temperature, like sandwiches and salads.
  • If you experience a metallic taste in your mouth, using plastic utensils may help.
  • Continue to incorporate fruits and vegetables into your diet. Fruit and vegetable smoothies and juices are a good option if cooked vegetables are unappetizing.

Work With Your Provider

While it may be difficult, it is important to keep eating. You can work with your medical team to adjust your treatments and find nutritional solutions. And always tell your doctor about any constipation, uncontrolled pain as a result of eating, or nausea that you experience.

What to Expect After Chemotherapy

Your energy levels will most likely be lower after each chemotherapy treatment. Be sure to stay hydrated and eat whatever foods sound good. Maintaining nutrition will help with your overall energy. Try to pace yourself in your daily activities. After you complete a task, you will probably need to rest. While it can be frustrating, fatigue is one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy. It can help to remember it is only temporary.

Your medical team can help keep fatigue and nausea under control. Be sure to tell them if any symptoms seem unusual or severe.

Chemotherapy vs. Radiation

Chemotherapy uses drugs to target and kill rapidly dividing cancer cells. The treatment is delivered through an infusion into a vein or medication port, or it can be taken orally.

Radiation therapy involves giving high doses of radiation beams directly into a tumor. The radiation changes the DNA makeup of the tumor, causing it to shrink or die.

Your medical team at Intermountain Cancer Center will recommend which therapy (or sometimes both) to use in order to treat your cancer.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does chemotherapy cost?

Chemotherapy costs can vary depending on the drugs used, the length of your treatment, and your insurance coverage. We know that financial worries can make a challenging time even harder, and we’re here for you. Intermountain Healthcare offers financial assistance for patients, as well as discounts for uninsured patients. Learn more here >