Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel to the tumor in order to kill cancer cells. The side effects from the chemotherapy come from the fact that it destroys normal cells, as well. Although the advantage is that the cancer cells are more sensitive to the drugs used. Chemotherapy may be given either alone or along with radiation therapy. When given alone, it is given in a higher dose designed to kill off cancer cells. When given along with radiation therapy, it is delivered at a lower dose and is designed to make the cancer more sensitive to the radiation. A wide variety of chemotherapy drug may be used including: adriamycin, cis-platin, taxol, carboplatin, paclitaxel, 5FU, and vinblastine.

Chemotherapy is usually given by vein, but some forms can be given by mouth. Your medical oncologist will tell you how many cycles or courses of chemotherapy are best for you. Usually there are between 4-6 cycles of chemotherapy given when the chemotherapy is delivered on its own, and up to 10 cycles of chemotherapy when the drugs are given along with the radiation therapy.

The side effects and amount of time required in the doctor’s office depend on the type of chemotherapy you receive, as well as how many cycles you receive and how often. The most common chemotherapy-associated side effects are:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue or tiredness
  • Hair loss
  • Increased frequency and urgency of bowel and bladder function
  • Depressed blood counts (which can lead to bleeding problems or to infection)
  • Soreness of mouth and gums
  • Diarrhea

When chemotherapy is given at a lower dose, as when it is given along with radiation, these side effects are less common. However, most people still feel very fatigued. A variety of drugs is available to manage side effects including nausea and fatigue that results from anemia. Ask your doctor if these may be appropriate for you.

Long-term side effects may also occur and depend on the type and dose of drug given. Adriamycin has been associated with damage to heart muscle, and some very rare cases of leukemia may also result from treatment with chemotherapeutic drugs.

Chemotherapy may be a part of treatment for cervical cancer both initially and if the cancer recurs. It can be used along with radiotherapy and surgery (as adjuvant therapy) to make the cancer more susceptible to radiation treatment and easier to control. Chemotherapy is also used to treat recurrent or metastatic disease.