While chemotherapy drugs are commonly associated with cancer treatment, they’re also used to treat autoimmune diseases and blood disorders.

Chemotherapy is a type of treatment often associated with cancer — and for good reason. It’s a mainstay of therapy for many different types of cancer.

What’s not so well known is that chemotherapy isn’t just used to treat cancer. It’s also used to treat autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as certain blood disorders, such as sickle cell anemia.

This article reviews the different types of chemotherapy, how they work, and what they’re used for.

There are many different types of chemotherapy drugs, and each type works in different ways. Most standard chemotherapy drugs are used to target cells at various phases in the cell cycle to stop cancer cells from replicating.

Since cancer cells multiply much more rapidly than normal cells, chemotherapy helps to stop or slow the progression of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

But chemotherapy drugs can’t differentiate between cancer cells and healthy cells, which means healthy cells can also sustain damage during treatment, which leads to side effects. This is why a doctor carefully considers the:

  • types of chemotherapy to use for your specific situation
  • the appropriate dose and duration
  • the best method for you to receive chemotherapy

When it comes to noncancer conditions, such as autoimmune diseases, certain types of chemotherapy can be used in low doses to drive down an overactive immune system to ease symptoms.

Chemotherapy can also be used for certain blood disorders to stop the excess production of red blood cells or platelets, as well as to prepare your body for a bone marrow transplant, per the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Types of chemotherapy

Different chemotherapy drugs work in different ways. Some can be broken down into general classes, but others don’t firmly fit into one classification. Here are the main types, according to the American Cancer Society:

  • Alkylating agents: This type of chemotherapy damages cell DNA, which stops cells from making copies of itself.
  • Antimetabolites: This type interferes with DNA and RNA in such a way that makes it impossible for the cells to reproduce.
  • Antitumor antibiotics: This type of antibiotic works by changing cancer cell DNA to stop them from multiplying.
  • Topoisomerase inhibitors: This type of chemotherapy works by interfering with certain enzymes responsible for helping cells replicate.
  • Mitotic inhibitors: This type stops enzymes from producing proteins necessary for cell division.
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Chemotherapy is most often used to treat cancer. The types of chemotherapy you receive will depend on the type of cancer you’re experiencing, where the cancer started, whether the cancer has spread, and your personal health history.

Chemotherapy drugs used for cancer

Since there are more than 100 chemotherapy drugs, it’s impossible to name which chemotherapy drugs are most often used for each type of cancer, but the National Library of Medicine offers a broad overview.

Types of chemotherapyTypes of cancer treated
Alkylating agents• leukemia
• lymphoma
• Hodgkin’s disease
• multiple myeloma
• sarcoma
• brain cancer
• lung cancer
• breast cancer
• ovarian cancer
Antimetabolites• leukemia
• breast cancer
• ovarian cancer
• intestinal cancer
Antitumor antibiotics• many different types of cancer
Topoisomerase inhibitors• leukemia
• lung cancer
• ovarian cancer
• gastrointestinal cancer
Mitotic inhibitors• myeloma
• lymphoma
• leukemia
• breast cancer
• lung cancer

Chemotherapy drugs used for autoimmune diseases and blood disorders

When it comes to autoimmune diseases and blood disorders, there are a few key chemotherapy drugs to know.

How you receive chemotherapy depends on what type of cancer or condition you’re experiencing. For cancer, chemotherapy is most often given as an intravenous (IV) infusion, which means the drugs will be given by inserting a tube or needle into a vein through your arm or through a port in your chest.

Other methods of giving chemotherapy include:

  • pills
  • shots
  • creams or gels for certain types of skin cancer
  • administration into a specific area of your body, such as through the urethra into your bladder
  • direct injection to the cancer via a vein or artery that feeds the tumor, or where the cancer used to be after surgical removal

Chemotherapy is used to treat many different kinds of cancer, as well as some autoimmune diseases and blood disorders.

Because chemotherapy drugs can’t differentiate between healthy cells and cancer cells, they may damage healthy cells and cause side effects. It’s important to note that chemotherapy isn’t the only way to treat cancer and other health conditions.

Targeted cancer therapy is being used more effectively to treat cancer with fewer side effects, and biologics are a powerful way to treat autoimmune diseases. Chemotherapy is simply another tool in the doctor’s treatment toolbox.