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What is Salvage Chemotherapy?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On May 09, 2012
@KoiwiGal - You say that now, but you might never have felt the effects of chemo or radiation therapy. You feel sick all the time, serious food poisoning-level sick, and you feel ugly, and you feel frail.

You might love life right now, but if you've been on chemo for a while, you can barely think, you can barely move, you are just barely alive, really. And often it doesn't even buy all that much time. Sometimes it doesn't buy any.

My aunt went through this and I've always regretted it. I don't think we could have made any other decision at the time, but she suffered so much from chemotherapy effects and gained so little time.

And that wasn't even with a salvage dose of chemotherapy. I'd hate to see what that does.

And so would most people, I think. It's not something I would ever do lightly.

By KoiwiGal — On May 09, 2012

@pastanaga - I personally think that options like salvage chemo (when it's used in a last ditch effort for terminal cancer) is more for the family of the person who is dying, rather than for them alone.

Being able to spend a few more weeks with their loved one might be worth it to everyone. I know my mother has always said the last few days she spent with her mother, before she died of cancer, were the most precious of her entire life.

If my grandmother hadn't decided to at least try and beat the cancer, she might not have had even that long.

It's never a black and white situation. It's the kind of thing that people need to decide for themselves.

Yes, chemotherapy for cancer can be very harsh on the body. But once the body is gone, that's it. Forever. Personally, I would rather suffer, but live.

By pastanaga — On May 08, 2012

This might sound strange, but I've heard that most doctors who get diagnosed with terminal cancer don't opt to have these kinds of aggressive treatments.

If they have a kind of cancer that is curable and there's a good chance they will live through it, of course they will try their best to beat it.

But, if the treatments are only meant to give them more time, they will usually decide to spend their last months and weeks at home, without the treatments.

That never seems to be an option for people. They always want to go down fighting. But, you know I can see why, after watching hundreds of people suffer from a chemotherapy regimen they prescribed, a doctor might choose to just enjoy the few days they have left.

Salvage chemotherapy is the best option in a lot of cases, I'm sure. But remember that if someone has terminal cancer, it's a real tragedy to make their last few days miserable, just so that they can be drawn out.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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