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What are Chemotherapy Agents?

By Eric Stolze
Updated May 17, 2024
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Chemotherapy is a type of cancer therapy that makes use of special cancer drugs, also known as chemotherapy agents, to treat various types of cancer. Chemotherapy agents can also be used to ease a patient’s symptoms and reduce the likelihood that a cancer will spread to other parts of the body in some cases. Physicians may choose from one or more of several types of chemotherapy agents including alkylating agents, anti-tumor antibiotics or mitotic inhibitors.

Physicians may prescribe courses of chemotherapy treatments or agents to cure or control a patient’s cancer by shrinking or destroying a tumor, depending on the type of cancer that the patient has. Alkylating agents are chemotherapy drugs that typically cause damaging effects to the genetic structure of cancer cells in order to stop them from reproducing. These kinds of chemotherapy agents may be prescribed for several types of cancer, including cancer of the ovaries, breasts and lungs. These treatments can also be used for multiple myeloma, leukemia and different kinds of lymphoma. Alkylating agents include nitrosoureas such as lomustine and streptozocin as well as nitrogen mustards such as melphalan and mechlorethamine—in some instances, patients have suffered bone marrow damage from these types of medications.

Anti-tumor antibiotics are chemotherapy agents that also can interfere with the genetic structure of a cancer tumor in order to stop its spread. Anthracyclines such as epirubicin and doxorubicin are among these drugs, and they may be used in the treatment of a wide variety of cancers. Another example of an anti-tumor antibiotic is mitoxantrone, a medication that doctors may prescribe for breast, prostate or lymphoma cancers. In some instances, patients have developed heart damage from high doses of anti-tumor antibiotics.

Mitotic inhibitors are chemotherapy agents that are usually derived from plants and can help with inhibiting the enzymes that cancer cells rely upon for growth. Lung and breast cancers as well as leukemia are examples of the types of cancers that may be treated with this type of drug. Several types of mitotic inhibitors exist, including vinca alkaloids such as vincristine and vinblastine and taxanes such as docetaxel and paclitaxel. In some cases, peripheral nerve damage has occurred in patients who used these kinds of drugs.

Topoisomerase inhibitors are chemotherapy drugs that also interfere with the reproduction of cancer cells in many instances. Physicians may use these kinds of drugs to treat cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, ovaries or lungs as well as some types of leukemia. Irinotecan and teniposide are examples of topoisomerase inhibitors.

In some instances, corticosteroids are used as chemotherapy agents to slow the growth of cancer cells and to kill the tumor cells. Corticosteroids may also be prescribed to reduce the vomiting and nausea that many chemotherapy patients experience. Prednisone and dexamethasone are examples of corticosteroids that may be used in the treatment of cancer.

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