If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, your healthcare team may have prescribed chemotherapy as part of your treatment plan. The goals of treatment with chemotherapy will depend largely on the type and stage of your cancer. If you’re currently undergoing or about to begin treatment with chemotherapy, you may want to understand the goals of your prescribed therapy.

Chemotherapy is any treatment involving the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Because chemotherapy involves cancer-fighting drugs that circulate in the blood to parts of the body where the cancer may have spread, it is considered a systemic treatment. These circulating drugs can eliminate cancers cells that have spread far from their place of origin.

The three main goals of treatment with chemotherapy, as determined by cancer type and stage, are:

  • To cure the cancer
  • To control the cancer
  • To relieve symptoms caused by the cancer

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Depending again on the type and stage of your cancer, you may be receiving chemotherapy alone or in combination with other therapies as well as before or after another treatment. The goals of administering chemotherapy before (neoadjuvant) or after (adjuvant) another treatment are as follows:

  • Neoadjuvant chemotherapy may be administered before surgery or radiation therapy. In either case, the goal of chemotherapy is to shrink the tumor and allow the next treatment to be more effective. This entails shrinking a tumor to make it more easily and completely removed by surgery or more effectively treated with radiation.
  • Adjuvant chemotherapy may be administered after surgery or radiation. Once a cancer has been treated with surgery or radiation, it’s possible that undetectable stray cancer cells remain in the patient’s body. Chemotherapy may then be administered with the goal of destroying or preventing the growth of these stray cells.