Understanding chemotherapy

Sanford Children’s Pediatric Oncologists are here to provide the latest in chemotherapy while minimizing side-effects as much as possible. Our pediatric cancer nurses and child life specialists are here to support each child and their family before, during and after treatment.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy (often just called “chemo”) refers to medications that kill actively dividing cells. Unlike healthy cells, cancer cells reproduce continuously because they don’t respond to the normal signals that control cell growth. Chemotherapy works by disrupting cell division and killing these actively dividing cancer cells. In contrast to radiation therapy, which destroys the cancerous cells of a tumor in a specific area of the body, chemotherapy works to treat cancer throughout the body.

If your child has been diagnosed with cancer, doctors will likely develop a customized treatment plan that takes into account your child’s age, the type of cancer, and where it’s located. A pediatric oncologist (a doctor who specializes in the treatment of childhood cancer) will work with other health care professionals to determine the chemotherapy regimen that’s best for your child. Sanford’s oncology pharmacists also work behind the scenes to ensure that every chemo order is correct, safe and appropriately administered.

How chemotherapy is given

Just as other medicines can be taken in various forms, there are several ways to get chemotherapy. In most cases, it’s given intravenously into a vein, also referred to as an IV. An IV is a tiny tube inserted into a vein through the skin, usually in the arm. The IV is attached to a bag that holds the medicine. The chemo medicine flows from the bag into the vein, which puts the medicine into the bloodstream. Once the medicine is in the blood, it can travel through the body and attack cancer cells.

Sometimes, a permanent IV called a catheter is placed under the skin into a larger blood vessel of the upper chest. That way, a child can get chemotherapy and other medicines through the catheter without having to always use a vein in the arm. The catheter remains under the skin until all the cancer treatment is completed. It can also be used to obtain blood samples and for other treatments, such as blood transfusions, without repeated needle sticks.

Chemo also can be:

  • taken as a pill, capsule, or liquid that is swallowed
  • given by injection into a muscle or the skin
  • injected into spinal fluid through a needle inserted into a fluid-filled space in the lower spine (below the spinal cord)

Chemotherapy is sometimes used along with other cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy, surgery, or biological therapy (the use of substances to boost the body’s immune system while fighting cancer).

Lots of kids and teens receive combination therapy, which is the use of two or more cancer-fighting drugs. In many cases, combination therapy lessens the chance that a child’s cancer will become resistant to one type of drug — and improves the chances that the cancer will be cured.

Posted In Cancer, Children's, Health Information

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