Chemotherapy and Other Types of Medical Oncology 

Dr. Craig Okada smiling.
Dr. Craig Okada focuses on treating lymphoma patients. He’s among the many skilled medical oncologists (doctors who treat cancer with chemotherapy and other medications) at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute.

At the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, our medical oncologists provide exceptional care tailored to your needs. We offer:

  • Doctors with exceptional skill and advanced training who understand the importance of treating your whole system to stop cancer.
  • Medical oncologists who coordinate your care by working closely with the other doctors on your team.
  • Leading-edge medications, including groundbreaking targeted therapies and immunotherapies.
  • Access to clinical trials to test promising new cancer medications.
  • Researchers who are among the world’s leaders in targeted and immune therapies.
  • A full range of support services to help you plan for and recover from treatment.
  • Locations throughout the Portland area so you can receive chemotherapy and other treatments close to home.

What is medical oncology?

Dr. Uma Borate, a medical oncologist, in a patient room.
Dr. Uma Borate, a medical oncologist, treats leukemia and other blood disorders. Learn why she’s committed to helping her patients return to the things they enjoy.

Treating your whole system: Oncology is the study of cancer. For many patients, cancer is a “systemic” disease. Cancer cells can break away and travel through your bloodstream or lymph system (part of the immune system). That often means your whole system needs treatment. Medical oncology uses medications to attack microscopic cancer cells circulating almost anywhere in your body.

Medical oncologists: Specialists in this field are called medical oncologists. These doctors understand the nuances of cancer diagnosis and treatment. Theymanage your medications and often your overall treatment plan.

Our excellence

Medical oncologist Zahi Mitri, M.D., M.S. examining a patient
Medical oncologist Zahi Mitri, M.D., M.S.,cares for patients with breast cancer and other types of tumors.

Expertise: Our cancer doctors have deep expertise in specific cancer types. They completed advanced training at some of the best cancer programs in the country, including Stanford, Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities. Our experts also train the next generation of providers through our medical oncology fellowship program.

Innovation: OHSU scientists have a long history of breakthroughs in cancer treatment. Knight Cancer Institute Director Brian Druker, M.D., helped pioneer Gleevec, a groundbreaking leukemia medication. It was the first to show the power of targeted cancer medicine.

National recognition: U.S. News & World Report ranks OHSU among the nation’s best cancer centers. The National Cancer Institute named the Knight Cancer Institute a Comprehensive Cancer Center, a top honor for research excellence.

Team approach: Your medical oncologist often directs your cancer care, coordinating with the other doctors on your team. We make sure every expert plays a role in tailoring care to your needs.

Research and clinical trials: The doctors at the Knight Cancer Institute are also scientists. As Oregon’s only academic health center, we offer access to clinical trials to test promising new treatments. Your care team will talk with you about whether a trial is right for you.

Support services: When you seek care from the Knight Cancer Institute, you can benefit from a full menu of OHSU patient and family services.

Care in the community: We partner with community clinics to offer you cancer treatments close to home.

Types of cancer medications

What is chemotherapy? Chemotherapy is medication that fights tumors by focusing on fast-dividing cells, a key trait of cancer cells. It acts on all fast-dividing cells, however, so it can also damage normal cells.

How does it work? Different medications work in different ways. Some prevent cancer cells from dividing, for example, while others trigger cells to self-destruct. Most patients receive a combination of medications, called a regimen, to take advantage of these different approaches.

How is it given? Most often, chemo medications are delivered in an IV drip called an infusion. Patients often receive chemo as outpatients in two- or three-week cycles with time off to recover. The number of cycles depends on your treatment plan.

When is it used? Chemotherapy can be given before or after surgery, or to manage symptoms of advanced cancer.

  • Before surgery (neoadjuvant chemotherapy): This chemo is given to shrink a tumor so that a patient needs less surgery, or to reduce a tumor so it’s small enough to remove in surgery. It can also help your doctor identify which medications work best on your cancer. 
  • After surgery (adjuvant chemotherapy): This chemo is given to kill any cancer cells that may remain after surgery. It reduces the risk that cancer will come back or spread to another part of your body. 
  • For advanced cancer (palliative chemotherapy): This chemo may be given to shrink or slow the growth of tumors or to control symptoms of cancer that has spread to other organs or tissues. 

What are targeted therapies? Targeted therapy is a newer type of chemotherapy that uses medication to affect specific molecules (targets) in cancer cells. This makes it less likely to affect normal cells or cause side effects.

Targeted therapies are often used to treat breast cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer and aggressive skin cancer. Discoveries by Knight Cancer Institute Director Brian Druker, M.D. also led to the development of Gleevec, a targeted therapy that turned a deadly cancer, chronic myelogenous leukemia, into a manageable condition.

How do they work? They attack cancer cells in different ways. Depending on your condition, you might have a targeted medication that acts on genes or proteins in your body to:

  • Block the signals that tell cancer cells to grow and multiply. 
  • Starve cancer cells or disrupt cell functions. 
  • Help other treatments work better by disrupting cancer cells. 

How are they given? Targeted therapies may be given intravenously or by mouth. They are often combined with other cancer treatments. The length of your treatment will depend on your cancer’s type and stage. For example, early-stage breast cancer patients who receive a common type of targeted therapy get infusions once every three weeks for a year.

When are they given? Like chemotherapy, targeted therapies can be given:

  • Before surgery, to shrink a tumor. 
  • After surgery, to lower the risk of cancer returning. 
  • For advanced cancer, to slow growth. 

What is hormone therapy? Hormone therapy is medication that treats cancers that use hormones to grow, such as breast cancer and prostate cancer. It’s usually combined  with other treatments.

How does it work? Hormone therapy works in two main ways. It blocks your ability to produce hormones, or it interferes with how your hormones behave.

It can keep cancer from growing and spreading by acting on substances called cell receptors. Receptors are proteins on the surface of cancer cells that attach to certain hormones and medications.

When your hormones bind with cancer cell receptors, they act like a key fitting in a lock. The can give the cells instructions to divide and grow. Most hormone therapies work by blocking the receptors — like jamming the lock — or by lowering the level of cancer-activating hormones in your body.

How is it given? Hormone therapy may be given by mouth, in a shot or implanted under the skin. In some cases, patients may have surgery to remove hormone-producing organs such as the ovaries or testicles.

How often you get treatment will depend on your condition. Some patients take daily pills at home. Others may have monthly shots at a doctor’s office or hospital.

When is it given? Like chemotherapy, targeted therapies can be given:

  • Before surgery, to shrink a tumor, though this is uncommon. 
  • After surgery, to lower the risk of cancer returning. 
  • For advanced cancer, to slow growth.

What is immunotherapy? Medications that boost your immune system’s natural ability to fight tumors are called immunotherapies. Compared with traditional chemotherapy, immune-based approaches may lead to longer-lasting improvements. They also may increase survival times in people with certain aggressive cancers.

Advances: Immunotherapies, offered at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, have led to several new ways to treat cancer. Our experts are working to make immunotherapy treatment available to more patients and for more cancer types.

Learn more

For patients

Call 503-494-7999 to:

  • Request an appointment
  • Seek a second opinion
  • Ask questions

Visit our For Cancer Patients page to find a cancer doctor and links to diagnoses.

Locations

Parking is free for patients and their visitors.

Center for Health & Healing Building 2
3485 S.W. Bond Ave.
Portland, OR 97239
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