How Does Chemotherapy Work in Blood Cancers?
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Chemotherapy and Blood Cancer

Published on Oct 06, 2022 and last reviewed on May 08, 2023   -  5 min read


Chemotherapy is the mainstay treatment for blood cancers. It improves the survival and quality of life in patients. Read this article to know more about it.


Cancer is one of the deadliest diseases that human evolution has seen. Many different types of cancers affect the human race, leading to many deaths every year. Blood cancer is one of the most common cancers that affect people. It refers to the cancer development in the blood cells affecting the body's ability to fight against infection. It originates from the blood and the bone marrow (where blood cells are produced). The leading cause of blood cancers is due to changes (mutation) in the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) of blood cells. In addition, there are high chances of familial transfer of genetic mutation leading to an increased risk of blood cancer.

Other risk factors contributing to blood cancer development include smoking, radiation exposure, chemical exposure, viral infections, etc. The treatment modalities for blood cancer are highly variable, as it depends on the severity of the disease and the patient's overall health. The different treatment options for blood cancers include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, bone marrow transplant, and targeted therapy.

What Is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy refers to the therapeutic procedure of killing cancer cells with the help of anti-cancer drugs. The chemotherapeutic agents are cytotoxic (toxic to living cells) in nature which interferes with the mitosis (cell division) or damages the DNA leading to the death of cells. Therefore, it helps treat various cancers by improving patients’ overall health and survival. Furthermore, in the case of aggressive cancers, it helps reduce the risk of recurrence. It offers a much more curative effect when combined with other cancer treatments.

How Does Chemotherapy Work in Blood Cancers?

In blood cancer, the blood cell production becomes uncontrollable leading to abnormal cell growth. These abnormal cells (cancer cells) invade the circulatory system, prevent blood from performing normal functions, and affect the immune system. Chemotherapy is given with curative intent in blood cancer, where it travels through the bloodstream and kills the cancer cells. However, traditional chemotherapeutic agents do not perform selective killing of cancer cells which also causes harm to normal body cells. Therefore, to achieve selective killing of cancer cells, chemotherapy should be combined with other cancer treatments like radiation therapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, etc.

It helps in improving the patient's overall health and survival and reduces the risk of recurrence in severe stages of blood cancer.

How Is Chemotherapy Given?

The chemotherapy regimen is variable for different types of blood cancer. It is modified based on the type and stage of blood cancer. You will generally receive chemotherapy as oral pills or IV (intravenously) or shots (through injection). It can be given in cycles where you will have treatment periods followed by rest to let your body recover.

Chemotherapy for blood cancer is usually given in three phases. It includes;

1. Induction:

The induction phase is a short and intensive phase that lasts for about a month. The main goal of the induction phase is to destroy the cancer cells and, particularly, cancer into remission. This phase usually requires a hospital stay for about four to six weeks.

After completing the induction therapy, the doctors will monitor the patient to check whether they achieved complete remission or not. Complete remission is achieved when,

  • All blood cell counts are back to normal.

  • All the signs and symptoms get resolved.

2. Consolidation Phase:

This phase is referred to as the phase of consolidation therapy or intensification therapy. In this phase, high doses of chemotherapy are given compared to the induction phase. The consolidation regimens may vary, usually given for a few months. The main aim of this phase is to prevent cancer cells from becoming resistant to chemotherapy.

3. Maintenance Phase:

The main aim of the maintenance phase is to prevent the disease relapse after the initial two phases of the therapy. Therefore, this phase is less intensive, and mostly the maintenance drugs are given orally to avoid severe side effects.

What Are the Side Effects of Chemotherapy for Blood Cancer?

Traditional chemotherapeutic agents cannot selectively kill cancer cells, and, therefore, it causes harm to normal body cells. By causing damage to normal body cells, it leads to many side effects in patients. The most common side effects include;

  • Fatigue.

  • Nausea and vomiting.

  • Loss of appetite.

  • Hair loss.

  • Diarrhea.

  • Weight changes.

  • Fertility problems.

  • Mood changes.

  • Shortness of breath.

  • Low blood cell counts.

  • Anemia.

  • Increased risk of infections.

  • Bruising or bleeding.

When given in higher doses, some chemotherapeutic drugs lead to severe side effects, such as;

  • It leads to cardiovascular side effects like cardiomyopathy (weakening of heart muscle), arrhythmia (heart rhythm problems), heart attack, etc.

  • Patients have weak immune systems due to low blood cell counts.

  • Conditions like Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia lead to a syndrome called tumor lysis syndrome (a condition in which a large number of tumor cells die spontaneously, releasing their contents into the bloodstream).

The patients are advised to inform their healthcare provider if they experience any of the possible side effects of chemotherapy. The doctor will help manage the side effects so that the patients can continue with their chemotherapy without any intolerance. In addition, most doctors combine it with other cancer treatments to induce a more effective cure and avoid severe side effects.

What Are the Chemotherapy Precautions to Be Followed in Blood Cancer?

To minimize chemotherapy's side effects, the doctor will advise the patients to undertake specific additional precautionary measures. These include;

  • The patient’s history of experiencing or having experienced any other health disorders other than blood cancer should be informed to the doctor. This information can help the doctor modify the chemotherapy regimen according to the patient's overall health status.

  • Always stick to the chemotherapy regimen and intake the medications at regular intervals as prescribed.

  • If the patient is intolerant to chemotherapy, the doctor should be updated about it so that the treatment can be modified or withdrawn accordingly.

  • Avoid contact with bodily fluids after chemotherapy, as the chemotherapy drug remains in the body for a few days. Family members, caretakers, visitors, and pregnant ladies should avoid contacting the patient's urine, vomit, or stool during the treatment and for up to a week after each chemotherapy treatment.

  • The doctor will closely monitor the patient’s condition to check for cancer remission after the induction phase and how well the patient responds to the treatment.

How Successful Is Chemotherapy for Blood Cancer?

Chemotherapy is the mainstay treatment for blood cancer. It is highly effective in patients aged less than 60 years compared to elderly patients. Patients with blood cancer will go into remission after the induction phase of chemotherapy. When given in cycles, it shows fewer side effects in patients. Combining chemotherapy with other cancer treatments is highly effective for treating blood cancer as it improves the patient's overall health and survival.


Chemotherapy is the mainstay treatment for blood cancer. Chemotherapeutic agents, when given, travel through the bloodstream and kill the cells. Unfortunately, it causes damage not only to cancer cells but also to normal body cells, leading to mild to moderate side effects in patients. The chemotherapy regimen varies with different types of blood cancer. It is highly effective in curing blood cancer. Patients aged less than 60 years often show a better response to chemotherapy than elderly individuals. Combining chemotherapy with other cancer treatments is more effective in treating blood cancer.

Last reviewed at:
08 May 2023  -  5 min read




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