Saint Alphonsus Health System

Medical Oncology

Medical oncology utilizes the most current standards of care available. The physicians in Medical Oncology use chemotherapy, biotherapy, immunotherapy and radiopharmaceuticals in the treatment of cancer.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of cytotoxic (anti-cancer) medications to kill cancer cells. There are many different types of chemotherapeutic drugs that can be used by themselves or, more commonly, in combination with one another to attack the cancer cells by various mechanisms. How the drugs are used depends on many factors, such as the type of cancer being treated, what stage it is in, where the cancer originated and what the cancer cells look like under the microscope.

Chemotherapy can be used alone or with surgery and/or radiation therapy. This will also depend on what type of cancer is being treated and where it is located in the body.

How does chemotherapy work?

To understand how chemotherapy drugs work, it is important to understand what cancer is and how it is formed. Normal cells in the body grow, divide, function and die in a controlled manner. These cells serve a specific function within the body, which has been genetically predetermined. Once that service is done, the cells will self-destruct and be replaced with new, healthy cells. Cancerous cells rapidly grow and divide in an uncontrolled manner and do not self-destruct, which creates a lump of cells called a tumor.

These cancerous cells do not serve any function. Chemotherapy attacks rapidly growing cells and interferes with their ability to divide and multiply, thus killing them. Since chemotherapy attacks rapidly growing cancer cells, it will also attack rapidly growing "good" cells, like hair follicles, the lining of the mouth, digestive system and bone marrow.

What are the side effects of chemotherapy?

Because chemotherapy attacks some healthy cells while attacking the cancer cells, certain side effects may occur. Some of these side effects are hair loss or thinning, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, pain and suppression of the immune system. Although these are unpleasant, many of these side effects can be managed with proper hydration, anti-emetic (or anti-nausea) drugs, pain medications and proper nutrition. Most side effects from chemotherapy are temporary and resolve once the treatment has ended.

How is chemotherapy given?

Most chemotherapy is given intravenously (injection of a drug into a vein or artery). Some chemotherapy is given orally as a tablet or capsule, subcutaneously (under the skin) or intramuscularly (into the muscle). There are also a few chemotherapy creams used for different types of skin cancer.