My child needs chemotherapy. But what does it do?
The main goal of chemotherapy is to kill cancer cells. Chemo kills cancer cells that form the tumor, and it kills cancer cells that may have traveled away from it. That’s because these drugs go through the bloodstream. Drugs that affect the whole body like this are called systemic treatments.
There are several reasons why your child’s treatment team may use chemo, including:
- shrinking a tumor before surgery
- killing cancer cells that have spread
- improving radiation treatment that will follow chemo
- helping a child feel better when cancer can’t be cured
Chemo can shrink a tumor before surgery to make it easier and safer to remove
The role of surgery is to remove the tumor. Sometimes the whole tumor can be taken out, but sometimes it can’t. Or sometimes the tumor is too large to be safely removed.
If any of these cases is true for your child, the pediatric oncologist may suggest chemo. As these drugs kill cancer cells, it makes the tumor smaller. When the tumor is small enough to remove safely, your child will have surgery.
Most often, surgery is the first treatment for solid tumors. So it’s called the primary treatment. When a different treatment is given before the primary treatment, you may hear the treatment team call that first treatment neoadjuvant care. In the case of chemo, this would be called neoadjuvant chemo.
Chemo can kill cancer cells left behind after surgery
Most children who need chemotherapy for a solid tumor will get it after surgery. When another treatment is given after the primary one, that second treatment is called adjuvant treatment.
Your child’s pediatric oncologist may use chemo to make sure that any cancer cells left behind with surgery are killed. Or, the doctor may use it to help keep the cancer from coming back.
Chemo can improve the effectiveness of radiation therapy
The three basic treatments for solid tumors are:
For certain types of tumors, like sarcomas, all three treatments are used to improve the chances of cure.
Chemo can help your child have a better quality of life
The goal of chemo is not always to cure cancer. Your pediatric oncologist may suggest chemo to reduce pain and help your child feel better.
You may hear the treatment team call this palliative care. That means a cancer treatment is used for some other reason than to cure the cancer.