While chemotherapy is not usually the first-line treatment for skin cancer, if your cancer has spread to your lymph nodes or beyond, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy treatment. Chemotherapy is a drug, or combination of drugs used to kill cancer cells and is frequently injected into your vein through IV, it can be taken orally or injected directly into the cancer.
What is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy uses drugs to stop or slow down cancer cells. Our body continuously reproduces cells to replace those that have died or been damaged. Cancer cells reproduce quickly, pushing away healthy cells and creating tumors. Chemotherapy stops cancer cells from dividing and reproducing - slowing down or halting your cancer.
Depending on the type and stage of your cancer, your doctor will use one drug or a combination of drugs. You may also receive immunotherapy drugs along with your chemotherapy.
How Chemotherapy is Given
While most people think of chemotherapy as being delivered intravenously, there are different ways you can receive chemotherapy:
- Topical creams - in a previous post we discussed topical chemotherapy creams that are applied directly to skin cancer
- Orally - drugs are taken orally and can be pills, capsules or a liquid medication
- Injection - a needle is used to inject medication in a muscle, fatty tissue or directly into the cancer
- Infusion - chemotherapy given intravenously in a hospital setting with a needle going directly into your veins
If your cancer is confined to a small area of your body, such as your arm or leg, your doctor is able to separate the blood flow to this area and chemotherapy is given only to this area. This prevents your organs from receiving the high doses of drugs.
There is no standard to how often you receive chemotherapy as this is based on the characteristics of your cancer and how well you recover after receiving chemotherapy treatments. To give your body time to recover, your doctor may want you to receive chemotherapy treatments for several weeks, then stop for several weeks before resuming the treatments.
Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy floods your body with strong medications which causes side-effects. Some of the most common side effects include:
- Loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Loss of hair
- Mouth sores
- Bruising easily
In addition, chemotherapy can kill off white blood cells, leaving you more susceptible to infection.
Preparing for Chemotherapy
Preparations for chemotherapy depend a great deal on the types of drugs and the frequency of your chemotherapy. Your doctor will discuss specific preparations with you but some guidelines include:
- A blood test to test for certain genes that may interfere with certain chemotherapy medications
- A dental exam to check for infections. Because chemotherapy can cause mouth sores, a dental exam can help to reduce your chance of infection.
- Taking certain anti-nausea medications can help reduce gastrointestinal side effects such as nausea and vomiting.
- Some chemotherapy treatments may interfere with a woman’s fertility. If this is the case, you may want to talk with your gynecologist about preserving fertility or options for preserving eggs for when you are ready to get pregnant.
- Decide on head coverings. Some chemotherapy treatments cause you to lose your hair. Before treatment begins, think about whether you prefer to cover your head after treatment. There are programs that supply wigs to those going through chemotherapy and it helps to talk with someone before treatment begins. You may prefer to have a variety of scarves, hats or turbans to cover your head until your hair grows again.
If you are having a number of chemotherapy treatments, talk to your doctor about inserting a port - which is a small disk used during chemotherapy. This eliminates the need to look for a vein at each session.
While it is impossible to say exactly how you will react to chemotherapy, you should also talk to your doctor about how severe the side effects may be. You may need to make arrangements to have someone help you at home during your chemotherapy and may need to take time off from work.
Your First Chemotherapy Session
As you get used to the chemotherapy sessions, you may be able to drive yourself to and from the hospital or clinic. However, for your first session, ask a friend or relative to accompany you. This gives you time to see if the medications make you sleepy.
Based on the type of chemotherapy you are receiving, your session can last anywhere from a few minutes to all day. Your doctor should be able to tell you how long you should plan on being at the hospital or clinic. During your chemotherapy, nurses will check on your vitals and to see how you are doing. Once the chemotherapy is completed, you will be asked to wait for about 30 minutes to be sure you are okay before being released to go home.
During the first few days after chemotherapy be sure to drink plenty of fluids. This helps to clush the drugs from your system.
At home you will need to take some precautions to help protect your family members, if you have more than one bathroom at home, your doctor may recommend that you use one and all other family members use a different bathroom for a few days. If you only have one bathroom, your doctor will give you instructions on handling urine, vomit, vaginal secretions, semen and other bodily waste.
Before leaving ask when you can return to normal daily activities and if there are any activities you should avoid (and for how long you should avoid them.) It is usually recommended that you stay away from places with crowds of people or children because your immune system is usually weakened from the chemotherapy.
“Chemotherapy for Melanoma Skin Cancer,” Reviewed 2013, Oct. 29, Staff Writer, American Cancer Society
“Chemotherapy - What to Expect,” Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Cancer.net
“Frequently Asked Questions - Chemotherapy,” Date Unknown, Staff Writer, University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center
Published On: November 08, 2013