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What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy, the use of drugs to stop cancer cells from multiplying in the body, has been a standard treatment for many types of cancer for the past 70 years. Chemotherapy has the ability to cure many cancers, and has proven effective at preventing the recurrence of others. Most pediatric cancer patients receive chemotherapy, which is a significant part of a larger treatment plan that may also include surgery, in addition to radiation therapy.

Patients typically receive chemotherapy one of three ways:

  • infusion: intravenously into a blood vessel
  • oral: drugs taken by mouth, either in pill or liquid form
  • injection: into muscle or under the skin, depending on the type and location of cancer

Most chemotherapy is administered to pediatric cancer patients intravenously. Infusion sessions typically last between one and several hours and are generally scheduled at one- to three-week intervals, depending on the chemotherapy drugs used. To flush the system of drugs left during treatment, hydration is critical. Hydration occurs during and after treatment, typically through an IV pump. Because hydration can last up to 24 hours, prolonged stays at the hospital are common.

Effects of chemotherapy

While chemotherapy destroys tumors, it can’t differentiate normal, healthy cells from cancer cells. Because of this, it not only eliminates fast-growing cancer cells, but also other fast-growing cells, such as hair follicles and blood cells, leading to adverse side effects. The most serious of these side effects is a compromised immune system. In some cases, a stem cell transplant can be performed in patients whose bone marrow has been damaged by high-dose chemotherapy.

Outpatient chemotherapy program

For many pediatric cancer patients, a daily course of chemotherapy no longer requires an overnight hospital stay. Through our outpatient chemotherapy program, launched by pediatric oncologists and oncology nurses at Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, eligible patients have the option of receiving post-chemotherapy intravenous fluids from a small pump carried in an easy-to-wear backpack. This means they can spend more time outside the hospital environment, sleeping either at home or at a home-away-from-home facility, such as the Ronald McDonald House.

Chemotherapy | Programs & Services