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Chemotherapy

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Updated June 10, 2014

Definition: Chemotherapy is a form of cancer treatment that involves taking one or more of a type of drug that interferes with the DNA (genes) of fast-growing cells. These drugs are further subdivided into specific classes such as alkylating agents, antimetabolites, anthracyclines, and topoisomerase inhibitors. They are usually given by IV infusion (slowly injected into your vein), but can be given orally (in pill form) or by direct infusion into a limb or the liver. Chemotherapy is often contrasted with targeted (biologic) therapy or immunotherapy, which attack specific parts of specific cells instead of all dividing cells.

Ironically, chemotherapy began in the 1940s due to discoveries made about the chemical weapon mustard gas during World War II. Since then, it has become a standard treatment method to control, but usually not cure, most types of cancer, including melanoma. Chemotherapy drugs used to treat melanoma include dacarbazine, temozolomide, paclitaxel, cisplatin, carmustine, fotemustine, vindesine, vincristine, and bleomycin. Combinations of chemotherapy agents are also often for melanoma -- the CVD (cisplatin, vincristine and dacarbazine) and BVLD (bleomycin, vincristine, lomustine and dacarbazine) regimens are examples of this.

However, chemotherapy as an overall strategy is not too effective in treating melanoma: only 15-20% of patients respond, it typically only works for less than a year, and it has no effect on survival time. Chemotherapy can also cause mild to severe side effects. The reason for this is that chemotherapy drugs also impact cells that normally grow quickly, such as hair, blood, stomach, and intestinal cells. Common side effects include nausea, vomiting, hair loss, fatigue, anemia (low red blood cell count), muscle/nerve pain, and a variety of other symptoms.

Also Known As: cytotoxic drugs, systemic drugs, antineoplastic drugs
Alternate Spellings: chemo, chemotherapeutic agents
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