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Chemotherapy Overview

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    About Chemotherapy

    More than half of all people with cancer will receive chemotherapy – powerful drugs that kill cancer cells to cure the disease, slow its growth, or reduce its symptoms.

    There are more than 100 different drugs used in chemotherapy, sometimes alone, but more often in combinations that have proven effective against specific types of cancer. Though traditionally given by injection or intravenous infusion, chemotherapy drugs are increasingly available as pills or liquids that patients can take at home (oral chemotherapy).

    Oral chemotherapy pills

    Oral chemotherapy pills

    Administered prior to surgery, chemotherapy may make a tumor smaller and easier to remove. Chemotherapy is often given as an adjuvant treatment following surgery or radiation to destroy any remaining cancer cells.

    Chemotherapy drugs work in many different ways to kill cancer cells. Most attack the DNA within cancer cells, preventing them from dividing and causing them to self-destruct. Methotrexate, for example, used to treat breast cancer, head and neck cancers, and some blood cancers, blocks a key enzyme the cells need to synthesize new DNA. Other drugs bind to the DNA and lock the strands of the double-helix in place, preventing them from unwinding to form new copies. Certain drugs originally isolated from fungus organisms trigger the formation of free oxygen radicals, which damage the strands of DNA within the cancer cells.

    Side Effects

    Chemotherapy can cause side effects because in addition to killing fast-growing cancer cells, the drugs can also harm rapidly dividing cells that make up the hair follicles, skin, and lining of the digestive tract. Oral chemotherapy and chemotherapy by infusion have the same symptoms and side effects.

    Along with chemotherapy, patients sometimes receive monoclonal antibodies, a relatively new type of cancer treatment. Made in the laboratory, monoclonal antibodies bind to proteins on the surface of cancer cells called antigens. This enables the patient’s immune system to recognize and destroy the cancer. Examples of monoclonal antibodies are Herceptin, for treating certain breast cancers, and Rituxan, a therapy for lymphoma.

    New Therapies

    In an effort to “target” cancer cells more specifically, a growing number of new drugs are designed to attack particular malfunctioning proteins that cause cancer cells to grow and spread. Since these flawed proteins aren’t found in normal cells, the drugs may have fewer toxic side effects.

    One of the best-known and earliest targeted drugs is Gleevec, which is a major advance in treating chronic myeloid leukemia and GIST – gastrointestinal stromal tumors. Other targeted therapies are Tarceva and Iressa, both used to treat certain lung cancers.

    Immunotherapy is one of the hottest and most promising strategies for cancer treatment. Unlike chemotherapy drugs, immunotherapy agents jump-start the patient’s immune system to attack cancer cells: some activate the cell-killing T cells of the immune system, while others remove the brakes that cancer cells apply to the patient’s immune response.

    These drugs, such as Yervoy ( ipilimumab) and the newly approved Keytruda (pembrolizumab) have mainly been used to treat melanoma but are being tested against other forms of cancer. Dana-Farber’s Center for Immuno-Oncology is currently testing a range of new immunotherapy agents.

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  • You may receive your chemotherapy at home, in an outpatient setting, or in the hospital. Your health care team will decide the best place for you to receive treatment.
  • Tips, Information, and Support

    Starting Chemotherapy: What to Expect

    In a compelling video, Joanna, a Dana-Farber breast cancer patient, describes her initial fears about starting chemotherapy, and talks about what the actual experience was like.

    Tips for Taking Oral Chemotherapy

    Cancer treatment increasingly takes place at home, as patients receive oral chemotherapy or other types of anti-cancer drugs through pills, tablets, and liquids. Read Thomas Kochanek, PhD's blog post, "Tips and Advice for Taking Oral Chemotherapy," based on his personal experience.

    Oral Chemo Diaries

    Are you taking chemotherapy in pill form? These printable diaries can help you keep track of your doses and side effects to share with your doctor.

  • Medications A – Z

    You may be taking one or more medications to treat your cancer, blood disorder, or related disease. Learn more about the medications prescribed by your doctor.

    Nutrition Services

    Our nutrition experts help patients follow a healthy diet during and after cancer treatment. They base their advice on scientifically sound nutrition research.

    Managing Side Effects

    As a DF/BWCC patient, you have access to an extensive array of support programs and services that address issues you may face before, during, and after your treatment.

  • Services and Support at Dana-Farber

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    Becoming a Patient

    As a new Dana-Farber patient, find answers to questions about your first visit: what to bring, how to find us, where to park, and how to prepare.

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    How Our Patients Rate Dana-Farber

    Take a look at patient satisfaction survey results for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
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    Support Services and Amenities

    We offer a wide range of services, from financial planning to creative arts to spiritual counsel, to support our patients through their cancer experiences.

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    The Eleanor and Maxwell Blum Patient and Family Resource Center

    The Blum Resource Center provides patients and family members with a comfortable environment to learn more about disease treatment and management.

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    Eating Well During Cancer Video Series

    This video series and resource toolkit features Dana-Farber nutrition specialist Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN, and explores how diet can help support your health and wellbeing during and after cancer treatment.
    Dana-Farber Care Card for patients

    Dana-Farber Care Card

    The Care Card is a prepaid spending account offering all our patients and visitors a safe and convenient way to make cashless purchases at many locations throughout Dana-Farber.