Does chemotherapy shrink tumors while waiting for surgery?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Could chemotheraphy shrink a tumor that they did not notice with first diagnosis while waiting for surgery?

Expert Answer

Senior Editor Melanie Haiken, who is responsible for's coverage of cancer, general health, and family finance, discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions.

Yes. Chemotherapy drugs are systemic, and travel throughout the body "mopping up" stray cancer cells. So any other tumors that were present, in addition to the one that was originally found would hopefully shrink or go away altogether. Today chemotherapy is often given prior to cancer surgery for this reason. This is known as neoadjuvant chemo, in which chemotherapy drugs are used to shrink the tumor before it's removed by the surgeon. Studies have shown that for some types of cancer, such as breast cancer and some head and neck cancers, neoadjuvant therapy plus surgery is more effective than doing it the other way around.