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Chemotherapy [KEE-moh-THER-uh-pee] is the use of medicine to destroy cancer cells. Sometimes these medicines are called “anticancer” drugs. Chemotherapy may also be used to treat immune system diseases.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy [KEE-moh-THER-uh-pee] is the use of medicine to destroy cancer cells. Sometimes these medicines are called “anticancer” drugs. Chemotherapy may also be used to treat immune system diseases.

Biotherapy is the use of medicine that increases the ability of the immune system to fight cancer and infection. It can also reduce some side effects of cancer treatment.

Cancer cells divide and grow in a different and more rapid way than than the body’s healthy cells. Chemotherapy and biotherapy stop cancer cells from dividing or growing in your child’s body. They can also help your child’s immune system work more normally.

Chemotherapy is used to:

  • Make a tumor shrink before surgery or radiation treatment
  • Destroy cancer cells that may be left after surgery or radiation
  • Help radiation and biotherapy work better

Biotherapy is used to:

  • Help chemotherapy work better
  • Help the immune system work better

Sometimes chemotherapy and biotherapy are the only treatments used for cancer or immune system diseases. Often, your child may be given other treatments as well. These treatments may include surgery or radiation.

Your child’s doctor will create a treatment plan based on:

  • The type of cancer or other disease your child has
  • Where the cancer or disease is found in your child’s body
  • The effect of the cancer or other disease on your child’s body’s normal functions
  • Your child’s general health

What are the risks and/or side effects?

Some of the risks and complications of chemotherapy may include:

  • Low blood counts. Chemotherapy lowers the number of blood cells in your child’s body. If the numbers are too low, your child may need a blood transfusion.
  • Infection. When the blood cell numbers are low, your child is at risk for infection.
  • Allergic reaction. Some chemotherapy and biotherapy medicines can cause an allergic reaction in some patients. Symptoms include fever, rash, blood pressure changes, and difficulty breathing. Severe reactions are rare.
  • Mouth sores and change in taste. Some chemotherapy and biotherapy medicines can damage the lining of your child’s mouth, esophagus, and intestinal tract (gut). This can change the way some foods taste to your child. 
  • Long-term effects. Chemotherapy and biotherapy can have long-term effects on different body systems. Some effects may not be noticed for several years after treatment.

What are the benefits?

Depending on the type of cancer or other disease your child has, and how advanced it is, chemotherapy may:

  • Cure the disease, so no disease cells can be measured in your child’s body.
  • Control the disease, or keep it from growing or spreading in your child’s body.
  • Relieve symptoms caused by the disease. Relieving symptoms helps keep your child more comfortable and can improve your child’s quality of life while living with cancer or another disease.

How do I prepare?

These steps will help your child’s chemotherapy or biotherapy go more smoothly:

  • Your child’s doctor will take a complete medical history. This is very important for safe care. Be sure to report all medical problems, recent illnesses, allergies, and current medicines your child may have, as well as any previous side effects to chemotherapy or biotherapy medicine your child may have. 
  • Your child will receive a complete physical exam. This helps make sure that your child’s body is healthy enough to have chemotherapy or biotherapy. 
  • Your child may have lab tests, x-rays, or other tests. These tests help tell if the chemotherapy or biotherapy is working. They also tell if it is safe for your child to receive chemotherapy or biotherapy. 
  • Your child may have an IV placed in a vein. This lets the chemotherapy or biotherapy medicine be given through the IV. If your child has a central line, your child will not need to have an IV. 
  • Your child may be given medicine to prevent nausea.

How is it done or administered?

Chemotherapy or biotherapy can be given in different ways. These include:

  • By vein. Chemotherapy or biotherapy may be given as a liquid through an IV or central line. 
  • By mouth. Chemotherapy or biotherapy may be given as a pill or liquid by mouth. These medicines should be taken at the same time each day. 
  • By injection. Some chemotherapy or biotherapy medicine is given as a shot. The shot can cause some discomfort. 
  • By lumbar puncture (back poke). Some chemotherapy is given in the spinal fluid during a lumbar puncture.

Often, two or more medicines are given at the same time. Each one treats the disease in a different way.

After the chemotherapy treatment:

  • Your child may receive extra IV fluid. This is to protect their body from side effects of the medicine. 
  • You may be asked to keep your child at the clinic or hospital to watch for side effects from the medicine. 
  • Your child’s doctor will tell you about side effects to watch for. They will also tell you what to do if your child experiences these side effects. 
  • Your child’s doctor will tell you about your child’s next appointment and any tests your child will need.

Medicine safety: Some medicines are classified as hazardous drugs; chemotherapy drugs are considered hazardous. If chemotherapy or another hazardous drug is given in the hospital or within 48 hours before your child is admitted, hospital staff will take precautions. They will take special care with the medicine, your child’s body fluids, and soiled laundry. You may see a sign on the hospital room reminding staff about steps they need to take. Research shows that long-term exposure can harm healthcare workers who come in contact with these medicines every day. Everyone taking extra care reduces the risk. If your child is having an IV treatment, you can help by alerting your nurse if you see any leak from the IV.

If your child receives treatments at home, you’ll need to take steps to handle the medicine safely. Your healthcare providers will teach you how.

When will I know the results?

Results may vary depending on your child’s exact condition. Talk to your child’s doctor to better understand what you can expect for results, and when.

What are follow-up requirements and options?

Your child’s treatment plan depends on their disease, how far it has advanced, and the type of medicines your child will receive.

Chemotherapy and biotherapy are usually given in cycles. A cycle is one or more medicines given on a single day or over several days in a row. The duration of each treatment could be minutes, hours, or days, depending on your treatment plan. The frequency of treatments may be weekly, every other week, or monthly. And the length of treatment from start to finish could be from a few months to two years or more.

How will my child’s doctor know if the treatment Is working?

Your child’s doctor will use physical exams and tests to measure how the treatment is working. Tests may include blood draws, lumbar punctures, bone marrow tests, x-rays, CT and MRI scans, or echocardiograms.