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Medical Oncology, formerly
Virginia Oncology Care

Chemotherapy - Medical Oncology

The Regional Cancer Center has experienced, fellowship-trained specialists that medically treat cancer in a variety of settings. Patients can receive treatment in the physician's office, as patients at Mary Washington Hospital and Stafford Hospital, and in one of our outpatient infusion centers.

Medical oncology is the specialty of treating cancer with drugs, including chemotherapy, targeted therapies, hormone therapies, and issues with the blood. Medical oncologists are specialists trained in this area; they often oversee the care of cancer patients, including managing pain and discomfort.

What is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs to treat cancerous cells. Chemotherapy has been used for many years and is one of the most common treatments for cancer. In most cases, chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cell's ability to grow or reproduce. Different groups of drugs work in different ways to fight cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used alone for some types of cancer or in combination with other treatments such as radiation or surgery. Often, a combination of chemotherapy drugs is used to fight a specific cancer. Certain chemotherapy drugs may be given in a specific order depending on the type of cancer it is being used to treat.

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How is Chemotherapy Administered?

Chemotherapy can be given:

  • As a pill to swallow
  • As an injection (shot)
  • Intravenously (directly to the bloodstream; also called IV)
  • Topically (applied to the skin)
  • Through surgery

Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles to reduce the damage to healthy cells and to give them a chance to recover. Treatments vary and may be given daily, weekly, every few weeks, or monthly, depending on your situation.

Since each chemotherapy treatment session may last for a while, patients are encouraged to take along something that is comforting, such as music to listen to. It is also recommended to bring something to help pass the time, such as a deck of cards or a book.

How Do I Prevent Against Side Effects From Chemotherapy?

While chemotherapy can be quite effective in treating certain cancers, chemotherapy drugs reach all parts of the body, not just the cancer cells. Because of this, there can be side effects during treatment. Being able to anticipate these side effects can help you and your caregivers prepare and, in some cases, prevent these symptoms from occurring.

Many drugs have been introduced in recent years to help with the side effects of chemotherapy. Your medical oncologist will discuss options for medication, diet, rest, and exercise with you.

What Are Targeted Cancer Therapies?

Targeted cancer therapies are drugs or other substances that block the growth and spread of cancer by interfering with specific molecules involved in tumor growth and progression. These drugs are called targeted therapies because, unlike chemotherapy, they target the tumor specifically and spare the rest of the body. Because of this, there are fewer side effects and may be more effective than other types of treatment, although there is not enough research yet to prove this.

Many targeted cancer therapies have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of specific types of cancer. Others are being studied in clinical trials (research studies with people). Targeted cancer therapies are being studied for use alone, in combination with other targeted therapies, and in combination with other cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy.

How Do Targeted Cancer Therapies Work?

Targeted cancer therapies interfere with cancer cell division (proliferation) and spread in different ways. Many of these therapies focus on proteins that are involved in the tumor's or cell's growth. By blocking signals that tell cancer cells to grow and divide uncontrollably, targeted cancer therapies can help stop cancer progression. Other targeted therapies stimulate the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells and/or by delivering toxic substances directly to the cancer cells.

What Is Hormone Therapy?

Hormones are chemicals produced by glands, such as the ovaries and testicles. Hormones help some types of cancer cells to grow, such as breast cancer and prostate cancer. In other cases, hormones can kill cancer cells, make cancer cells grow more slowly, or stop them from growing. Hormone therapy as a cancer treatment may involve taking medications that interfere with the activity of the hormone or stop the production of the hormones.

How Does Hormone Therapy Work?

Your physician may recommend a hormone receptor test to help determine treatment options and to help learn more about the tumor. This test can help to predict whether the cancer cells are sensitive to hormones.

If the test indicates that the hormones are affecting your cancer, the cancer may be treated in one of following ways:

  • Treating cancer cells to keep them from receiving the hormones they need to grow
  • Treating the glands that produce hormones to keep them from making hormones
  • Surgery to remove glands that produce the hormones, such as the ovaries that produce estrogen, or the testicles that produce testosterone

The type of hormone therapy a person receives depends upon many factors, such as the type and size of the tumor, the age of the person, the presence of hormone receptors on the tumor, and other factors.

When Is Hormone Therapy Given?

Your physician may prescribe hormone therapies before some cancer treatments or after other cancer treatments. With some cancers, patients may be given hormone therapy as soon as cancer is diagnosed, and before any other treatment. It may shrink a tumor or it may halt the advance of the disease. And in some cancer, such as prostate cancer, it is helpful in alleviating reducing symptoms.

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