Cancer Provider and Patient

St. Vincent Healthcare

Chemotherapy and Immunotherapy

If your doctors have recommended chemotherapy to treat your cancer, you may have many questions. How does chemotherapy work? How hard are the side effects? Although the mix of anticancer medications and side effects differ from person to person, one thing is the same: Our commitment to do everything we can to keep you comfortable and feeling well as you heal.

What is chemotherapy?

For many people, the word “chemotherapy” can be as concerning as cancer itself. It may help you to think of chemotherapy as medicine, or a combination of medicines. Chemotherapy has been used for many years and is one of the most common treatments for cancer. In most cases, chemo works by interfering with the ability of cancer cells to grow and reproduce.

Chemotherapy may be used alone for some types of cancer, but is usually used in combination with other treatments such as radiation or surgery. Often, a mix of chemotherapy medicines is administered to fight a specific cancer. Certain medicines may be given in a specific order depending on the type of cancer they’re being used to treat.

Side effects of chemotherapy

You’ve likely heard or read about the common side effects of chemotherapy, or known someone who has experienced them. These occur in part because chemotherapy attacks fast-growing cells, which include healthy cells as well as harmful ones. Side effects may include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Decreased appetite
  • Sores in the mouth
  • Diarrhea
  • Feeling tired
  • Increased chance of infection
  • Loss of hair
  • Easy bruising
  • Tingling, burning sensations, or numbness in the hands or feet

The severity of side effects can range significantly from person to person. Our team uses a variety of techniques to prevent, minimize and manage side effects and help you cope.

How is chemotherapy given?

Chemotherapy can be given:

  • As a pill to swallow
  • As an injection (shot) into the muscle or fat tissue
  • Intravenously (directly to the bloodstream; also called IV or infusion therapy)
  • Topically (applied to the skin)
  • Directly into a body cavity

To reduce the damage to healthy cells and give them a chance to recover, chemotherapy is usually administered in cycles. Chemotherapy may be given daily, weekly, every few weeks or monthly, depending on your situation.

Infusion therapy

You may receive chemotherapy through infusion (IV) therapy, where therapies and medications are administered directly into your bloodstream. Infusion chemotherapy usually takes place in an outpatient setting like a hospital, clinic or healthcare provider's office, where you’ll be watched for reactions during treatment. Since chemo sessions last for a while, you’re encouraged to bring things that help you relax and pass the time, such as a book, a deck of cards or a music player with earphones. Plan on having someone drive you to and from your appointment as it’s hard to predict how you’ll feel after each treatment.

Oral chemotherapy

Every year, new drugs are approved for the treatment of cancer, and one of the most rapidly growing fields is oral chemotherapy. It offers many advantages over traditional chemotherapy, including the ability to take your medication at home. If oral chemotherapy is right for you, your doctor or a specialized pharmacist will provide you with everything you need to administer it at home.

Our pharmacy has received a Joint Commission Home Care accreditation, recognizing our ability to equip you with the education and support you need to successfully complete this treatment option. In addition, our pharmacy has a system in place to help you afford your oral chemo medications, through drug company assistance and foundation funding. 


The immune system is your personal defense system and is complex. It is found throughout the body including within cells, organs, in proteins and tissues. The immune system identifies and fights infections and disease, including cancer.

Cancer cells are abnormal cells that can interfere with the function of the immune system and avoid being recognized as a threat to the body. Cancer immunotherapy is designed to stimulate your natural immune system to recognize and attack cancer.

It is also called Biological response modifier (BRM) therapy or Biotherapy.

Biological therapy does this by:

  • Stopping or controlling the processes that allow cancer to grow

  • Making cancer cells more easy to find by the immune system so they can be killed

  • Increasing the killing power of immune system cells

  • Training immune cells to fight cancer cells

  • Stopping cancer cells from spreading to other parts of the body

Biological therapy can be used alone to treat cancer. It can also be used with other treatments. These include chemotherapy and radiation therapy. 

What are the side effects of immunotherapy?

Many of the side effects of immunotherapy are related to over-stimulating the immune system with the increased production of natural immune substances in your body. Some common side effects and include fever, chills and flu-like aches, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite and fatigue. An allergic reaction can also occur as well as an inflammation of certain organs or body systems. Your healthcare team will discuss side effects of the immunotherapy you will receive.

How is immunotherapy given?

Immunotherapy can be given in the vein (intravenous), by injection (under the skin or subcutaneous; or in the muscle or intramuscular). This therapy can also be given directly into a body cavity, such as the bladder, or directly into a skin lesion, such as with a vaccine.


Sign up for our e-newsletter!

Get tips to help you manage your family's health, options to boost your fitness and advice to live your best life.