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Chemotherapy Treatment for Blood Cancers

What Is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses powerful drugs to kill fast-growing cells in your body.

Blood cancers often start in the bone marrow — the spongy tissue that makes blood cells.

Blood cells and cancer cells grow and divide quickly. This double vulnerability makes chemotherapy drugs one of the main treatments for blood cancers.

Chemo travels through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout your body often through an IV. You may also receive some forms of chemo in pill form or as a shot under the skin.

Doctors use chemotherapy to both treat cancer and relieve cancer symptoms. For instance, chemo can help shrink tumors that cause pain.

At UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, we offer a full range of chemo treatment options for all types and stages of blood cancer.

Medical and radiation oncologists work closely to:

  • Decide if your treatment plan should combine both chemo and radiation.
  • Time your treatments in a way that will maximize positive results.
  • Provide the most appropriate treatments for your type of blood cancer.

When Do You Use Chemotherapy to Treat Blood Cancer?

Doctors use chemo to treat most forms of blood cancer, including all types of:

For some people with another type of blood cancer known as myelodysplastic syndrome, chemo may also be a good treatment option.

Am I too old for chemo?

Your doctor will not rule out chemo to treat your blood cancer based on just your age.

They will consider how strong and healthy you are. People of advanced age who are relatively strong can often receive chemo safely.

What if I'm pregnant?

Sometimes, women can receive chemotherapy during pregnancy.

Research shows that chemo is safe to treat blood cancer in pregnant women after the first trimester.

Types of Chemotherapy for Blood Cancer

At UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, we tailor your chemo treatment program to your:

  • Disease state
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Goals
  • Prognosis

Your treatment team will choose from a wide range of chemotherapy drugs to target your specific cancer.

Receiving Chemotherapy for Blood Cancer

Each type of blood cancer has its own chemo regimen. You'll often receive the same drugs in the same order for the same duration as other people with blood cancer.

But your doctor will also tailor your treatment to your exact circumstances if needed.

In general, you'll receive chemo:

  • By mouth, shot, or IV. The form depends on the type and stage of your blood cancer.
  • In cycles. That means you'll have treatment periods followed by rest periods to allow your body to recover.

Before you start treatment, your doctor will explain:

  • How long each treatment cycle will last.
  • How many treatment cycles you will need.

For example, if you have acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), you can expect treatment in three phases:

  1. Induction: Short and intensive, this phase usually lasts about a month. The goal is to kill as many cancer cells as quickly as possible. Ideally, induction chemo will put your cancer into remission.
  2. Consolidation (intensification): Intensive, typically lasts for a few months. You will receive higher doses of the same or similar drugs as in induction. The goal is to prevent any remaining cancer cells from becoming chemo-resistant.
  3. Maintenance (post-consolidation): Less intensive, typically lasts for about two years. The goal is to prevent disease relapse. Most times, you take maintenance chemo drugs by mouth for fewer side effects.

Doctors often use chemo along with radiation therapy and steroids to treat blood cancer.

Your doctor may also recommend chemotherapy combined with a stem cell transplant to replace your body's blood-forming cells.

How to Prep for Chemotherapy

Here are some questions to ask your doctor about what to expect during chemo:

  • Which drugs will I receive?
  • How often will I need to get chemo?
  • How long will my treatments last?
  • What's the goal of chemo for my cancer?
  • What are the chances that the chemo will work?
  • How will I know if the chemo is working?
  • What are the risks and side effects of the chemo I will be taking?
  • How do these side effects compare with the side effects of other treatments?
  • Will I be able to drive myself to and from treatment appointments or should someone drive me?
  • What can I do to get ready for treatment and decrease the chance of side effects?
  • How much time do I have to decide about treatment?
  • Can I take part in a clinical trial?

Write down your doctor's answers. Consider bringing someone with you to help you take notes. Ask your doctor what you should do if you have questions before your next appointment.

Chemotherapy Side Effects

In addition to attacking cancer cells, chemotherapy also affects normal cells. This can lead to side effects. These side effects vary with the type of chemo you receive.

Here are some of the most common:

  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bruising and bleeding easily.
  • Infection
  • Low blood cell counts.
  • Loss of appetite
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Mouth sores
  • Mood changes
  • Concentration problems known as “chemo brain."

Not everyone gets every side effect. Side effect severity also varies from person to person.

If the side effects of chemo treatment become hard to manage, you may need a short stay in the hospital.

You may have chemo treatment on an outpatient or inpatient basis, depending on your blood cancer diagnosis.

Your care team will discuss side effects with you before you start treatment, so you know what to watch for. They will also monitor any side effects closely during and after treatment.

Chemotherapy and side effects can take an emotional toll on you, too. The UPMC care team offers many support resources for people affected by cancer.

Why Choose to Have Chemotherapy at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center?

UPMC shares a close relationship with the University of Pittsburgh that allows us to offer clinical trials of breakthrough blood cancer treatments. Many times, you won't find these treatments anywhere else.

We give you the option to take part in trials as part of your blood cancer treatment plan.

For more, see:

Contact Us About Chemo for Blood Cancer

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center has more than 200 cancer experts and 70 locations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, and western New York. And as one of the largest community cancer networks in the U.S., we're right in your backyard.

Find a UPMC Hillman Cancer Center doctor or location near you.