Steroids are often prescribed alongside chemotherapy because they can reduce inflammation, pain, and nausea, among other benefits.

When chemotherapy is prescribed, corticosteroids, also called “steroids,” are often prescribed as supportive medications.

Corticosteroids are synthetic drugs that resemble cortisol, a steroid the body naturally produces that acts as an anti-inflammatory substance. During chemotherapy, corticosteroids can serve a variety of purposes, such as reducing pain and inflammation and increasing your appetite.

This article takes a look at the role of steroids in chemotherapy.

What is chemotherapy?

Although the word “chemotherapy” describes any medication used for any disease, it’s become associated with the medications used to treat cancer.

Doctors use many different kinds of medications to treat many different types of cancer, and not all of them work the same way.

Chemotherapy is considered a systemic treatment, which means the drug is dispersed throughout the body. The drug can then kill cancer cells that are far from the original tumor and cells that are small enough to be otherwise undetectable.

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Doctors often prescribe steroids along with chemotherapy drugs because they can provide several benefits. Steroids may:

  • reduce inflammation and pain
  • stimulate appetite
  • reduce nausea or vomiting
  • help manage allergic reactions
  • help kill the cells of some cancers
  • help boost energy

You may be given a pill to take orally or an intravenous infusion of steroids. These methods allow the steroids to be dispersed through your entire body, as opposed to a steroid cream that only affects one area.

It’s unusual for chemotherapy to be given without steroids or other medications to help reduce the side effects of chemotherapy. Steroids play a variety of roles during chemotherapy, and a medical care team may have chosen to use them because they have weighed any risks against the benefits.

If you’re experiencing side effects from the steroids, talk with a doctor. They may reduce the steroid dose, use a different steroid, or choose to taper you off and use them for shorter, as-needed durations.

A doctor will take the individual needs and health situations of each person receiving chemotherapy treatment into consideration, which includes whether to use steroids.

Medications are available to replace steroids during chemotherapy. Which replacement medications a doctor prescribes depends on:

  • the reasons the steroids were prescribed
  • your individual response to chemotherapy
  • your specific health situation
  • any side effects that are occurring

For example, if steroids are being used to help control pain, analgesics such as opioids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be used. If steroids are being used to curb nausea and vomiting, there may be other anti-nausea medications that might be appropriate.

These are decisions a doctor should make. If you’re interested in replacing the steroids that are part of your treatment, talk with a treatment team first.

Don’t stop taking steroids on your own

Don’t stop taking prescribed steroids or reduce the dose on your own. Each drug you’re on was chosen for specific reasons and given extensive consideration.

If you’re experiencing any difficulties with the steroids, let a doctor know. They can help you adjust your medication or prescribe another medication.

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While there are multiple types of cancer treatments and medications, including immunotherapy and targeted therapy, not all cancer treatments are right for every cancer and person.

The type of treatment chosen is based on a standardized formula of staging, type of cancer, individual health, and specific situational factors.

Treatment teams use best practices for treatment, and if other medications haven’t been shown to be effective or used in a certain type of cancer treatment, they may not be used.

Doxorubicin, also known by the name brands “Adriamycin” or “Rubex,” is one of the most powerful chemotherapy drugs.

Doxorubicin is part of the drug class known as “anthracyclines” and has the nickname “the red devil” because of its bright red color. There are many cancer treatment regimens with doxorubicin that also contain a steroid, such as prednisone.

Doxorubicin is known to have significant effects on the heart and cardiovascular system. Doxil, a reformulated version of the drug, is a bit less toxic due to being in a different form that makes it easier on the body. There are currently studies being done on ways to reduce the medication’s toxicity.

People on doxorubicin and those who have taken it need to be checked regularly by a cardio-oncologist and get regular screenings and follow-ups after treatment.

Steroids are used during chemotherapy for a variety of purposes, including to relieve pain and inflammation and to help with nausea.

Not everyone tolerates steroids well, so if you start having any side effects, let a treatment team know right away. They may try to find alternative medications for the purposes the steroids were serving.