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Updated on June 28, 2022

Chemotherapy

Cancer occurs when your cells keep dividing and forming more cells and can spread to other parts of the body.  In other words, cancer cells are cells which have gone out of control.  Chemotherapy works by destroying cancer cells by preventing them from multiplying.  Unfortunately, your normal healthy cells will also be affected hence causing you to have some side effects.

Chemotherapy aims to maximise the killing of cancer cells while reducing the side effects on your healthy cells.  Your cancer doctors will recommend the appropriate chemotherapy as a treatment option for your cancer.  There are so many types of chemotherapy medications used to treat the different types of cancer and this can be confusing to patients.  This article will try to explain chemotherapy in simple terms.

Click to view Macmillan Cancer video on Chemotherapy Review

For Your Cancer Treatment, the Chemotherapy;

  • may consist of a single or more than 1 medication at the same time (known as combination chemotherapy or ‘cocktail’)
  • will be given in cycles (the duration and number of cycles varies depending on the type and stage of cancer as well as your general health and tolerance to the medication)
  • can be given before or after surgery
  • may be given with other treatments such as Radiation Treatment as well as with other medications called Targeted Therapy, Hormone Therapy or Immunotherapy

Click to view CanadianCancerSociety video Chemotherapy

Types of Chemotherapy Medications

It is easier to understand the chemotherapy if they care classified depending on how the medications work to kill the cancer cells. 

1. Alkylating agents are medications which prevent cancer cells from growing or reproducing itself during all phases of the cell cycle.  They include;

  • Mustard gas derivatives such as Mechlorethamine, Cyclophosphamide, Chlorambucil, Melphalan, and Ifosfamide
  • Hydrazines and Triazines such as Altretamine, Procarbazine, Dacarbazine and Temozolomide.
  • Metal salts such as Carboplatin, Cisplatin, and Oxaliplatin

2. Nitrosoureas are medications which can slow down or stop enzymes which help cancer cells repair their DNA and cross the blood-brain barrier.  They include Carmustine, Lomustine and Streptozocin.

3. Anti-metabolites are medications which can interrupt the cancer cells division process thereby stopping the cancer from growing.  These medications are cell-cycle specific and are classified according to the substances which they interfere;

  • Folic acid antagonist such as Methotrexate
  • Pyrimidine antagonist such as 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU), Foxuridine, Cytarabine (Ara-C), Capecitabine (Xeloda), and Gemcitabine (Gemzar)
  • Purine antagonist such as 6-Mercaptopurine and Thioguanine
  • Adenosine deaminase inhibitor such as Cladribine, Fludarabine, Nelarabine and Pentostatin

4. Alkaloids are medications which can block the cancer cell’s ability to divide, multiply or repair itself.  They include;

  • Topoisomerase I inhibitors such as Irinotecan and Topotecan
  • Topoisomerase II inhibitors such as Amscarine, Etoposide (VP-16) and Teniposide
  • Taxanes such as Cabazitaxel, Docetaxel, Nab-paclitaxel and Paclitaxel
  • Vinca Alkaloids such as Vinblastine, Vincristine and Vinorelbine

5. Anti-neoplastic (antibiotic-like) medications interfere with the DNA synthesis required for cancer cell growth.  They include;

  • Anthracyclines such as Doxorubicin, Daunorubicin, Epirubicin, Mitoxantrone and Idarubicin
  • Chromomycins such as Dactinomycin and Plicamycin.
  • Miscellaneous such as Mitomycin-C and Bleomycin
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Chemotherapy Terms

Your cancer doctor may use terms to explain how your chemotherapy is given during your cancer management. 

  • Adjuvant chemotherapy is given AFTER surgery to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence (by destroying any microscopic cancer cells which may remain in your body after surgery
  • Neo-adjuvant chemotherapy is given BEFORE surgery to shrink the tumour size
  • First line chemotherapy is the standard treatment based on evidence based research to treating the cancer for that cell type and stage of disease
  • Second line chemotherapy (also called salvage chemotherapy) is given when the cancer has not responded or has reoccurred after first line chemotherapy.
  • Palliative chemotherapy is given specifically to treat symptoms (rather than having expectations to cure the cancer) to make life more comfortable for the patient

In haematological cancers such as leukemias, your cancer doctor may use these terms during your cancer management.

  • Induction chemotherapy is given to induce a remission
  • Consolidation chemotherapy is given when remission is achieved
  • Maintenance chemotherapy is given (usually in lower doses) to help prolong a remission period and prevent disease relapse

Be Positive during your Cancer Treatment Journey

During your cancer treatment, you may go through many thoughts including despair, guilt or sadness.  Many cancer patients of all ages have gone through their treatment successfully and you too should also try take a positive attitude during your treatment journey. 

Discuss with your surgeon or oncologist on your treatment options


Disclaimer. TELEME blog posts contains general information about health conditions and treatments. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. The information is not advice and should not be treated as such. 

If you think you may be suffering from any medical condition, you should seek immediate medical attention from your doctor or other professional healthcare providers. You should never delay seeking medical advice, disregard medical advice, or discontinue medical treatment because of information on this website.