What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs designed to slow or stop the growth of rapidly dividing cancer cells in the body. It may be used:
- As a primary treatment to destroy cancer cells
- Before another treatment to shrink a tumor
- After another treatment to destroy any remaining cancer cells
- To relieve symptoms of advanced cancer
At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), our medical oncologists are experienced in delivering targeted, individualized chemotherapy options while also proactively managing side effects.
Chemotherapy delivery methods
Some chemotherapy delivery methods include:
- Orally (by mouth as a pill or liquid)
- Intravenously (by infusion into a vein)
- Topically (as a cream on the skin)
- Direct placement (via a lumbar puncture or device placed under the scalp)
When chemotherapy drugs travel through the bloodstream to reach cells throughout the body, it is called systemic chemotherapy. When chemotherapy drugs are directed to a specific area of the body, it is called regional chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy for brain cancer
Our medical oncologists treat brain cancer with an aggressive and creative approach, selecting drug combinations and delivery methods based on your individual needs. For patients with high-grade brain cancer, chemotherapy is commonly used. You may receive chemotherapy alone, or in combination with other brain cancer treatments, such as brain cancer surgery and/or radiation therapy.
Systemic chemotherapy for brain cancer
Chemotherapy drugs enter the bloodstream and reach areas throughout the body. A challenge with using chemotherapy for brain cancer is finding drugs that can cross the blood-brain barrier (the natural barrier that protects the brain) to reach tumor cells in the brain.
Chemotherapy drugs may be administered orally in pill form, or injected into the vein. For some types of brain cancer, chemotherapy drugs may be given directly into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), either in the brain or spinal column. To help with this, our doctors can surgically implant a special reservoir under the scalp. The reservoir is attached to a tube that leads into a ventricle of the brain where the CSF circulates.
Local chemotherapy for brain cancer
Our doctors can also deliver chemotherapy directly to the area of the brain tumor at the time of surgical resection. As we remove all or part of the brain tumor, we’ll place dissolvable Gliadel® wafers (containing the chemotherapy drug carmustine, or BCNU) in the space left by the tumor or near parts of the tumor that can’t be removed. The wafers slowly release the chemotherapy over several days.
Since local chemotherapy is administered as close as possible to the brain tumor at the resection area, rather than systemically, this technique increases the drug concentration at the tumor site while reducing the side effects typically associated with systemic chemotherapy.
Addressing side effects of brain cancer chemotherapy
Chemotherapy targets rapidly-dividing cancer cells. Yet, some healthy cells in the body also divide rapidly, like those in the hair follicles, mouth, stomach and bone marrow. When chemotherapy damages these healthy cells, the following side effects may result:
- Hair loss
- Increased risk of infection (from low white blood cell counts)
- Fatigue (from low red blood cell counts)
- Easy bruising and bleeding (from low blood platelet counts)
Before your treatment begins, your care team will meet with you to answer your questions and talk about what you can expect from treatment, including how we’ll help you manage chemotherapy side effects.
Throughout your brain cancer treatment, we’ll use a combination of approaches. For example, your doctor may prescribe certain drugs before and during treatment to combat nausea or prevent infection. We’ll also do routine blood tests to monitor your blood cell counts. Your doctor may also prescribe steroids to help relieve swelling around the brain tumor, improve neurologic functioning and increase appetite.
Additionally, therapies like nutrition therapy, naturopathic medicine, pain management, and oncology rehabilitation, can all help to reduce chemotherapy side effects and keep you strong so you can maintain your quality of life as much as possible during treatment.