Chemotherapy cancer treatment

Chemotherapy (sometimes just called ‘chemo’) is the use of drugs to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. The drugs are called cytotoxics, when means toxic to cells (cyto). Some of these drugs come from natural sources such as plants, while others are completely made in a laboratory.

On this page you will find information about:

How does it work?

All cells in the body grow by splitting into two cells or dividing. Chemotherapy damages cells that are dividing rapidly. Most chemotherapy drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body to target rapidly dividing cancer cells in the organs and tissues. This is known as systemic treatment. Sometimes chemotherapy is delivered directly to the cancer. This is known as local chemotherapy.

Why have chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy can be used for different reasons:

  • To achieve remission or cure –  In many cases, chemotherapy causes the signs and symptoms of cancer to reduce or disappear (often referred to as remission or complete response). The treatment may be called curative chemotherapy.
  • To help other treatments – Chemotherapy is sometimes given either before or after other treatments. Used before (neoadjuvant therapy) the aim is to reduce the cancer so the other treatment can be more effective. If chemotherapy is given after your main treatment (adjuvant therapy), the aim is to get rid of any remaining cancer cells. Chemotherapy is often given with radiation therapy to make the radiation therapy more effective.
  • To control the cancer – Even if chemotherapy cannot achieve remission or complete response, it may be used to control the cancers growth for an extended period of time. This may be called palliative chemotherapy.
  • To relieve symptoms – By shrinking a cancer that is causing pain or other symptoms, chemotherapy can improve quality of life. This is also called palliative treatment.
  • To stop cancer coming back – Chemotherapy might continue for months or years after remission. This is called maintenance chemotherapy, and it may be given with other drug therapies. It aims to prevent or delay the cancer returning.

How is chemotherapy given?

Chemotherapy is most often given via a vein (intravenously). It is sometimes given in other ways, such as tablets you swallow (oral chemotherapy), as a cream, or as injections into different parts of the body.The choice depends on the type of cancer being treated and the chemotherapy drugs being used. Your treating team will decide which is the most appropriate way to deliver the drugs.

Does chemotherapy hurt?

Having a needle inserted for intravenous chemotherapy may feel like having your blood taken.

  • If you have a temporary tube (cannula) in your hand or arm, only the initial injection may be uncomfortable.
  • If you have a central venous access device, it should not be painful.
  • Some types of chemotherapy will cause side effects. However there are many ways to manage these, see the Understanding Chemotherapy booklet for more information.

How long does treatment last?

How often and how long you have chemotherapy depends on the type of cancer you have, as well as the drugs that are used. You will usually have a number of treatment cycles and these may be daily, weekly or monthly. Often people have chemotherapy over 6–12 months, but it’s possible to have it for a shorter or longer period. Maintenance chemotherapy (to prevent the cancer coming back) and palliative treatment (to control the cancer and relieve the symptoms) may last many months or years.

What are the side effects?

Chemotherapy affects all the cells that grow and divide quickly in the body. This includes cancer cells and normal cells, such as new blood cells in the bone marrow or the cells in the mouth, stomach, skin, hair and reproductive organs. When chemotherapy damages normal cells, this causes side effects.

Whether or not you experience side effects, and how severe they are, depends on the type and dose of drugs you are given and your reaction from one treatment cycle to the next.

Side effects of chemotherapy may include:

  • Appetite changes, nausea or vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Skin and nail changes
  • Mouth sores
  • Constipation or diarrhoea
  • Memory changes
  • Anaemia, infections and bleeding
  • Nerve, muscle and hearing effects
  • Sexuality and fertility changes

Some people have no side effects, others will experience a range. If you have side effects, they will usually start during the first few weeks of treatment and may become more intense with each treatment cycle.

For more information refer to the Understanding Chemotherapy booklet.

The information available on this page should not be used as a substitute for advice from a properly qualified medical professional who can advise you about your own individual medical needs. It is not intended to constitute medical advice and is provided for general information purposes only. See our Disclaimer.