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Chemotherapy for Ovarian Cancer

Chemotherapy is one of the main ways to treat ovarian cancer. It uses anticancer drugs. The drugs kill or slow the growth of the cancer. You will almost always have chemotherapy and surgery to treat ovarian cancer.

The doctor who treats you with chemotherapy is called a medical oncologist. Chemotherapy for ovarian cancer usually involves more than one drug.

You may want to know details about the drugs you’re taking. You may also want to know about their common side effects. Ask your doctor and nurse to go over what you want to know about your treatment.

What happens during chemotherapy 

About one to four weeks after your surgery to remove ovarian tumors, you will likely begin chemotherapy. You'll have it for about six months.

Photo of intravenous drug bag

How often you receive treatment will depend on the type of chemotherapy you receive. This depends on the size of the tumor and whether it is likely to spread quickly. You may have it every day, every week, every few weeks, or even once a month.

How and where you get the drugs

You may receive the drugs intravenously, meaning by vein, through an IV. This is known as systemic therapy. The drugs enter the bloodstream and reach all areas of your body. This makes the treatment especially useful if your cancer has spread beyond the ovaries.

Or you may receive the drugs by injection directly into your abdomen. This is called intraperitoneal chemotherapy. Recent clinical trials show that using both delivery methods extends the survival of women with advanced ovarian cancer. Doctors may give both intravenous and intraperitoneal therapies together. Occasionally drugs that are given by mouth can also be used. 

Most chemotherapy is given in a doctor's office or in the outpatient part of the hospital. The treatments can last several hours each.

Kinds of chemotherapy drugs for ovarian cancer

There are several drugs to choose from. Your doctor may recommend more than one at the same time. This is called combination chemotherapy. Sometimes this works better. These chemotherapy drugs are typically used to treat ovarian cancer. They may be used alone or in combination.

  • Platinum agents such as Paraplatin (carboplatin) and Cisplatin. These are the drugs doctors most often use to treat ovarian cancer. They work by creating breaks in the genetic material inside each cell called DNA. This leads to cell death.

  • Taxanes, such as Taxol (paclitaxel) and Taxotere (docetaxel). These prevent cells from dividing. This class of drugs is used in combination with cisplatin or carboplatin.

  • Anthracyclines, such as Adriamycin (doxorubicin) and Doxil (liposomal doxorubicin). These are drugs often used if cancer recurs, or comes back.

The side effects of chemotherapy depend on which drugs are given and at what dose. You may or may not experience a particular side effect, depending on your overall health and other medications you may be taking. Your doctor may give you instructions or medicines that can prevent or help control these side effects. The drugs mainly affect any cells that divide rapidly (including cancerous cells and cells in certain normal tissues):

  • Blood cells. When drugs affect your blood cells, you are more likely to get infections, bruise or bleed easily, and feel very weak and tired. Your doctor or nurse will check blood counts and suggest medicines that can help your body make new blood cells and recover sooner. They may also reduce your dose or postpone a treatment if your blood counts become too low.

  • Cells in hair roots. Some drugs can cause hair loss. Your hair will grow back, but it may be somewhat different in color and texture.

  • Cells in the digestive tract. Certain drugs can cause poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth and lip sores. Please tell your health care team if you experience these problems.

Some patients may notice hearing loss, joint pain, and tingling or numbness in the hands or feet. Most of these side effects usually go away after treatment ends. You should report these symptoms to your doctor or nurse as soon as you notice them. 

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