Cancer of Unknown Primary: Chemotherapy

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of medicines that kill cancer cells. The medicines attack and kill cells that grow quickly, like cancer cells. But some normal cells also grow quickly. Because of this, chemotherapy can harm those cells. This can cause side effects.

When might chemotherapy be used for cancer of unknown primary?

Chemo medicines travel through your blood to reach cancer cells throughout your body. This makes it useful to treat cancer of unknown primary (CUP). Chemo can also kill cancer cells that may not have even been found.

This treatment can shrink tumors. It can also help ease symptoms the cancer is causing. It may even make some tumors go away. In some cases, it can help people live longer.

How is chemotherapy given for cancer of unknown primary?

You might get chemo for CUP as a pill you swallow. Or it may be put into your blood through 1 of your veins. Then the medicine spreads through your body to kill cancer cells. The medicine you get depends on the part of your body where the cancer is first found. Your healthcare provider may give you chemo to try to cure CUP. Or you may get it to try to slow the growth of the cancer.

Two or more chemo medicines are usually used at the same time. The medicines used will depend on where the cancer has spread to and what other health issues you have. It also depends on the toxic effects the chemo may have and where in your body the cancer most likely started. Common medicines used to treat CUP include:

  • Paclitaxel

  • Etoposide

  • Cisplatin

  • Carboplatin

  • Docetaxel

  • Fluorouracil

  • Gemcitabine

  • Oxaliplatin

  • Capecitabine

  • Irinotecan

  • Leucovorin

What are common side effects of chemotherapy?

Chemo damages both normal cells and cancer cells. Side effects depend on the type and dose of medicines you get. Ask your healthcare provider which side effects to watch for.

Common side effects of chemo include:

  • Appetite loss

  • Blood count changes

  • Bruising and bleeding

  • Diarrhea

  • Hair loss

  • Infection

  • Mouth sores

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Tiredness

Ask your healthcare provider what you should expect. Also, ask what can be done to help prevent or ease side effects.

Working with your healthcare provider

It's important to know which medicines you're taking. Ask your healthcare team how they work and what side effects they may cause.

Talk with your healthcare team about what signs to look for and when to call them. For instance, chemotherapy can make you more likely to get infections, so you may be told to call if you have a fever or chills. Know how to get help after office hours and on weekends and holidays.

It may be helpful to keep a journal of your side effects. Write down any changes you notice. These include physical, mental, and emotional changes. A list will make it easier for you to remember your questions when you go to your checkups. Work with your healthcare team to make a plan to manage side effects.