Types of Chemotherapy Drugs and What to Do

Before, During, and After Treatment

Dealing with a cancer diagnosis can be extremely tough. Every phase of the process requires a new sense of mental fortitude and resilience. Planning ahead can help cancer patients regain some control over their diagnosis. Below we’ve listed some types of chemotherapy you may encounter and how to prepare for treatment.

Chemotherapy attacks dividing cells, making them more likely to kill cancer cells than normal ones.
Doctors choose chemotherapy based on your cancer type, where it first showed up in your body, whether it’s spread, your age and general health, and what the cells look like under a microscope. After factoring in all of these, your doctor will choose a type of chemotherapy to treat you with.

There are more than 100 different chemotherapy drugs, but there are seven main ones most utilized by doctors. Most of them tend to have these side effects in common: increased likelihood of infection and fatigue, bleeding risk, pain/numbness (nerve damage), dry mouth/mouth sores/swelling in the mouth, poor appetite/weight loss, nausea/vomiting/diarrhea, hair loss, or thinking/memory problems (“chemo brain”). Now, here are the top seven kinds of chemotherapy drugs, what they’re used to treat, and some additional side effects that are unique from the ones mentioned above:

Alkylating Agents

These are used to treat leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin disease, multiple myeloma, sarcoma, brain cancer, and cancers of the lung, breast, and ovary. Some examples of these include Temodar, Myleran, and Cyclophosphamide. This treatment may damage bone marrow.

Used to treat leukemia and cancer of the breast, ovary, and intestinal tract, there are no additional side effects for this form of chemotherapy. Examples of antimetabolites include Xeloda, 6-MP, and Gemcitabine.


Anti-Tumor Antibiotics

These antibiotics are used to treat many types of cancer, and high doses can damage the heart. Examples include Cosmegan, Bleomycin, and Doxorubicin.


Topoisomerase Inhibitors
Some of these can make a person more likely to get second cancer. These are used to treat leukemia, lung, ovarian, gastrointestinal, and other cancers.

Mitotic Inhibitors
These inhibitors treat leukemias, lymphomas, myelomas, and breast and lung cancers. Examples include Doxetaxel, Ixempra, and Vinblastine. These treatments are more likely than other types of chemotherapy to cause nerve damage.


Here are some ways you can be prepared before your first chemotherapy treatment:


  • Take someone with you. For your first treatment, it can be helpful to bring someone along to keep you company and help drive you home in case you feel tired immediately after treatment. It’s unnecessary to do so, but that little bit of support can go a long way in helping you keep your spirits up.
  • Visit your dentist ahead of time. Sometimes chemo side effects include mouth sores, so don’t wait to do it later. Be sure to keep good dental hygiene practices like brushing with a soft toothbrush and using an alcohol-free mouthwash.


  • Be well-informed. Ask your oncology care team which specific side effects to expect from your chemotherapy drugs. Ask them if you should take your regular medications the day of the infusion. Know how to handle waste and bodily fluids after treatment since chemotherapy drugs are released in small amounts after treatment and need to be handled with care. University Hospitals has put out a highly informative PDF about best practices in the bathroom and the bedroom after chemotherapy.


  • Do all of your shopping before the infusion. Pick up your prescriptions and medical supplies such as a thermometer and anything else you think you may need in the days after your infusion. Go grocery shopping for light, healthy snacks. Most patients prefer bland snacks to combat nausea. Some prefer sipping mint tea or sucking on hard ginger candy as well.


  • Clear your schedule. Talk with your employer about chemotherapy and get your first infusion day off if you can. Sometimes the fatigue kicks in later, so see if your employer will be flexible in the days following the treatment. Know your rights - most employers are legally obligated to give their employees time off for chemo treatments. Cancel any other appointments or meetings you may have scheduled in the week after your treatment.


  • Get help with food preparation, pet cleanup, and childcare. Chemotherapy often leaves patients fatigued, so it may be a good idea to consider asking for help with childcare or food prep. If you’ve got many friends who want to help, signup genius is a fantastic option that lets people sign up online and even sends reminders. Chemotherapy increases the risk of infection, so it’s best for someone else to handle pet waste of any kind (this includes litter boxes, backyard mine-field cleanup, and cleaning fish bowls and pet terrariums).


  • Pack a bag. Include your chemotherapy journal (more info on that below) along with light, healthy snacks, hydrating drinks, and gum. Don’t forget to pack warm layers in case you get cold (a jacket, sweaters, socks, hats, etc.) and something to do (a book, laptop, tablet, music to listen to, or board games to play with your support person).


  • Keep a chemotherapy journal. In it, write the names of your medical team members, infusion dates, and the chemotherapy drugs administered. In-between infusions, jot down how much sleep you’re getting, how you’re feeling, and what you’re eating. This is useful not only for your medical team but for you to be better prepared next time.


  • Stay hydrated. Remaining hydrated can go a long way in helping you feel better. Sometimes chemotherapy can cause nausea, so it’s essential to ensure you get enough water. If you’d prefer something with a bit more flavor, you can also infuse your water with fruit, cucumber, or mint. There are other options as well, such as sports drinks and herbal tea.


  • Focus on the good. Having a friend or family member with you during the infusion can be very helpful in this respect. Still, there are other ways to stay positive: take a photo album of your loved ones with you, make friends with fellow patients, and call or write old friends during the infusion. Another tip that’s been shared by post-chemo patients is not to compare your after-chemo body to your before-chemo body. Some things will change, and that’s OK.







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