Researchers and physicians are trying new ways to ease the notorious side effects of chemotherapy and make it more tolerable.

While many of the new cancer drugs hitting the market in recent years have markedly improved care, they haven’t yet displaced chemo, the workhorse of oncology.

Researchers are trying tactics including reformulated versions of chemo drugs and still-experimental technology like a tiny implantable sponge that soaks up excess chemo, after it hits the tumor but before it can enter the rest of the bloodstream.


Longer-standing tactics such as spacing out chemotherapy infusions, giving lower doses or treating side effects are also making the treatments less toxic for some patients, doctors say.

Traditional chemotherapies remain valuable in treating many cancers that can’t be attacked with newer drugs. They also are used in combination with new treatments to hit cancer from different angles. Many patients with breast cancer, leukemia, colon cancer and others still receive chemo, with side effects including hair loss and nausea.​

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Although many types of drugs could be described as chemotherapy—the word simply means chemical therapy—the term is usually reserved for older classes of cancer medications that work by killing fast-growing cells in the body. These include not just cancerous cells, which divide and grow uncontrollably, but also some healthy cells, such as those in hair follicles and the gut.

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