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Salvage chemotherapy is a form of chemotherapy which is offered when a cancer recurs or a patient is not responding to other forms of cancer treatment. It is often high dose, with the goal of trying to beat the cancer into remission, and it can be very hard on the patient. Different doctors have different definitions of “salvage chemotherapy,” which can sometimes make the term a bit meaningless, and this is something to be aware of when discussing options for cancer treatment.
In general medical terms, salvage treatment is any kind of therapy which is offered after a patient fails to respond to initial therapy, or when a disease recurs. It may involve different medications, higher doses, and a generally more aggressive course of treatment, or it may be very similar to the initial treatment. Depending on the situation, the goal may be to cure the patient, or to extend life to give the patient more time. Doctor and patient usually discuss the goals before treatment to make sure that both parties are aware of the expectations of the other party.
In the case of salvage chemotherapy, the goal is often to aggressively attack the cancer. A patient may be given this form of chemotherapy alone, or offered several therapies. For example, someone with lymphoma might have salvage chemotherapy drug treatment to prepare for a stem cell transplant, with the chemotherapy eradicating the cancer and the patient's existing stem cells to create a clean environment for transplant.
During salvage chemotherapy, some steps must be taken for patient safety. The drugs can be very hard on the body, and it is important to protect the patient's organ systems, to make sure the patient gets adequate nutrition, and to protect the patient's immune system. Aggressive chemotherapy can wipe out the immune system, leaving the patient vulnerable to infection, including those which may be carried in the body, such as the virus which causes chicken pox. Before chemotherapy starts, tests may be conducted to confirm the patient is a good candidate, and the doctor will go over the treatment protocol with the patient.
When evaluating treatment options, patients may want to ask about all treatment options, the possible prognosis with each, and what kind of side effects to expect. Every case is slightly different, and a doctor cannot predict results with perfect accuracy, but experience with other patients may allow a doctor to provide some insights which can help patients make an informed decision about what they want to do to address the cancer.