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How does chemotherapy work?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Chemotherapy drugs attack your cells' ability to reproduce, thereby killing cancer cells, which reproduce quickly and form into clumps called tumors. Side effects of chemotherapy, such as hair and bone marrow loss, are results of this attack on cell reproduction. High-dose chemotherapy treatment programs may require replacement of bone marrow through a stem-cell transplant. Bone marrow stem cells are responsible for creating blood cells.

Cheryl Taylor
Oncology Nursing Specialist

In general, chemotherapy kills rapidly dividing cells. Many of the different types of chemotherapy attack cells as a specific phase of the cell cycle (the way that cells reproduce). Killing off rapidly dividing cells is why many chemotherapy drugs have the side effects, such as: hair loss, mouth sores and/or diarrhea. Hair cells divide quickly and the cells that line the mouth and the gut do as well.

Chemotherapy works best on cells that divide quickly, like cancer cells. Chemotherapy travels around the body looking for cancer cells, and when it finds them, it destroys them. Chemotherapy can find cancer cells in a tumor as well as cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body. There are lots of different types of chemotherapy medicines, and they all work in slightly different ways.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.