Systemic Therapy is any type of drug that spreads throughout the whole body to treat cancer. These drugs may be given intravenously (IV), by pill, or by injection. The type of Systemic Therapy offered to people with cancer depends on the kind of cancer, the location of the cancer, and the overall health of the person.
Types of Systemic Therapy:
Sometimes called chemo, these drugs are used to destroy cells that are rapidly dividing throughout the body, including cancer cells.
Some types of cancer cells need hormones, such as estrogen or testosterone, to grow. Hormone Therapy is used to either stop the body from making the hormone or by stopping the cancer cells from using the hormone to grow.
Some types of cancer cells have specific proteins or genes that can be targeted by drugs to stop the cancer cells from growing or spreading.
These drugs work by activating the body’s immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells
Where do I access Systemic Therapy?
Some systemic therapy treatments can be taken at home but many need to be given in the hospital by specialty trained staff. Many locations across Nova Scotia are able to provide safe, high quality systemic therapy with the goal of treating patients as close to home as possible.
At times, patients may need to travel to Halifax or Sydney to discuss their treatment plan with a physician specializing in cancer or to receive certain Systemic Therapy treatments. In some cases, telephone or virtual visits may be offered to reduce the need for travel.
How do I access this service?
Systemic Therapy is ordered by specialty physicians called oncologists or hematologists. A referral from your family doctor, Nurse Practitioner (NP), or surgeon is required for an appointment with an oncologist or hematologist.
Details at https://library.nshealth.ca/Staff-Cancer-Care/Referrals
How do I prepare for my appointment?
For your first appointment with the oncologist or hematologist, please bring your health card and all the medications you are taking (including any over the counter and herbal/naturopathic medications) with you. You are encouraged to bring some one with you for this appointment who can listen and take notes for you.
For your first appointment for Systemic Therapy treatment, it is important to bring any drugs that your oncologist or hematologist prescribed for you. You may also want to bring something to pass the time, such as magazines, books, or music with headphones. We recommend that you wear comfortable clothing with sleeves that can roll up. Before your treatment, take your regular medication, unless your oncologist/hematologist has told you otherwise, and eat a light meal.
What should I expect at my appointment?
Before starting systemic therapy treatment, you will meet with an oncologist or hematologist to discuss your cancer diagnosis and treatment options. At this first appointment, you may have a physical exam and you will meet with other members of the cancer care team, including specialized oncology nurses and pharmacists, who will help you better understand your treatment plan.
You may be given prescriptions for drugs to help manage side effects and papers to get your blood work done before you start treatment. You may be asked to attend a class or watch a video to learn more about Systemic Therapy side effects and how to best take care of yourself during treatment.
During your first appointment for systemic therapy treatment, specialized nurses will try to answer any other questions you have and review information about your treatment, including taking medications to manage side effects.
Nursing staff may insert an IV into your vein to start your treatment and will be close by during your entire appointment. The length of time you will need to stay depends on the types of drugs you are getting; check with your cancer care team to find out how long your appointment will be.
Will there be any follow-up?
Following your first appointment, you may have questions for your cancer care team about your systemic therapy treatment. It is helpful to write down questions and bring them to your next appointment. You will also be given contact information to call your cancer care team if you have questions that need to be answered sooner.
Your family doctor or nurse practitioner is an important part of your care team when you are being treated for cancer. Your oncologist or hematologist will send a letter to your family doctor or nurse practitioner after every visit to tell them about how you are doing with your cancer treatment.
General Cancer Care:
Systemic Therapy information:
- How chemotherapy works
- Canadian Cancer Society; Taking care of yourself during chemotherapy
- Canadian Cancer Society; What is immunotherapy?
- Canadian Cancer Society; Taking oral chemotherapy at home
You may also visit our Nova Scotia Health Authority Cancer Care Program patient information site here.
Patient Education Resources
The Systemic Therapy Unit offers many services, including chemotherapy, immunotherapy, cellular therapy, supportive care, and apheresis. Information about the unit, what to expect during appointments, your health care team, and other information is outlined.
This pamphlet has information about the possible side effects while being treated with immune checkpoint inhibitors, a type of immunotherapy.
This pamphlet describes what you, your family, friends and caregivers need to know about cytotoxic precautions. This pamphlet explains what cytotoxic precautions are, what body fluids are cytotoxic, how to handle your body wastes, what to do if your body wastes spill and what to do with the garbage.
Immune checkpoint inhibitors work by helping your own immune system to work harder or smarter to attack cancer cells. This pamphlet explains how cancer affects your immune system, what CPIs are, and precautions to take.
This pamphlet explains what support is available if you don't have an insurance plan, how to find out if your insurance plan or Nova Scotia Pharmacare plan will cover your medications, what you can do if your medications are not covered, and whether the Canadian Cancer Society helps with drug costs.
The use of natural health products during chemotherapy, cellular therapy (including bone marrow transplantation), or surgery is not recommended. This pamphlet defines natural health products and outlines Nova Scotia Health's guidelines on the use of natural health products during chemotherapy.