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What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy (chemo) refers to the use of drugs, known as chemotherapeutic agents, to kill or slow the growth of rapidly multiplying cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs are most commonly given intravenously (through an IV) or orally (through the mouth), but they can be given in other ways. If chemotherapy is given before the primary treatment, then it is called neoadjuvant chemotherapy. If chemotherapy is given after the primary cancer treatment, it is called adjuvant chemotherapy.

One type of chemotherapy is systemic therapy, or chemotherapy that affects the entire body. Systemic therapy uses either pills or intravenous medication to kill cancer cells that have spread, and affects both healthy cells and cancerous cells. If you have the drugs given intravenously, you will likely get them at an outpatient clinic. 

Why it's done

Chemotherapy is often recommended as a primary treatment for cancer. It is also used to prolong life and/or control symptoms of the disease. Chemotherapy is often used as part of a standardized treatment and often in conjunction with other cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy or surgery. It may be given as a combination of drugs, or as single agents depending on the stage of disease and the clinical situation.

Our approach

At Northwell Health Cancer Institute, our team of medical oncologists offers the most advanced, individualized chemotherapy options while proactively managing potential side effects. Chemotherapy is administered following strict standards of care while also addressing your specific needs.

Treatments are provided in a comfortable chemotherapy suite by staff that is dedicated to making your visit as informative and stress-free as possible. This begins with an in-depth conversation describing your treatment, including what to expect, possible side effects and goals. Personalized treatment also includes careful consideration of current health, family history, age and personal preferences.

Because convenience is a priority, we offer multiple locations for chemotherapy, giving you the option to obtain treatment near home or work. Assistance is also available to help with obtaining medications, managing insurance issues and completing routine paperwork.

Research at Northwell

Advances in chemotherapy are continuously happening at Northwell Health Cancer Institute. Alliances with leading research organizations such as Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory enable us to participate in investigator-initiated trials and offer the most leading-edge therapies to patients. 

Northwell Health Cancer Institute is recognized worldwide for its commitment to providing pioneering treatment for cancer patients. Our ongoing focus on improving cancer treatments has contributed to significant advancements that are improving quality of life and survival rates.

Learn more about clinical trials and research happening at Northwell Health Cancer Institute.

What to expect

Prior to receiving chemotherapy as part of your cancer treatment, you will be asked to provide a complete medical history and may have to undergo a thorough physical examination to ensure you are in good health. Blood tests and other diagnostic tests may be performed. It is important to notify your healthcare provider about any sensitivities or allergies to medication, latex, tape, contrast dyes, iodine or anesthetic agents.

Your chemotherapy team will consist of a medical oncologist, an oncology nurse and other healthcare professionals who will guide you through your treatment. Before starting with chemotherapy, you will meet with your medical oncologist to review your medical records.

It is likely you will require multiple chemotherapy treatments that are given in repeating cycles. Cycles typically range from two to six weeks. Along with planning your treatment, your doctor will help you prepare for possible side effects. Supportive care services are available to help you manage and treat them.

Possible side effects

Chemotherapy can cause some side effects, including:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Hair loss
  • Fatigue
  • Mouth sores
  • Low blood counts

Most side effects usually go away after treatment ends. At Northwell Health Cancer Institute, your team of specialists focuses on preventing or managing side effects throughout your treatment.

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Support groups

Cancer is challenging, but you're not alone. At Northwell Cancer Institute, a wide range of support groups are available to help you cope with diagnosis, treatment and post-treatment issues.

Learn more about support groups.

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