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.

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 –  Chemotherapy may be given as the main treatment with the aim of causing the signs and symptoms of cancer to reduce or disappear (often referred to as remission or complete response).
  • To help other treatments – Chemotherapy can be given before or after other treatments, such as surgery or radiation. If used before (neoadjuvant therapy) the aim is to shrink the cancer so the other treatment (usually surgery) is more effective. If given after (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 (chemoradiation).
  • To control the cancer – Even if chemotherapy cannot achieve remission or complete response (see above), it may be used to control how the cancer is growing and stop it spreading for a period of time. This is known as 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 chemotherapy.
  • 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 you apply to your skin, 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 chemotherapy drugs can cause inflamed veins (phlebitis), which may be sore for a few days.

How long does treatment last

How often and how long you have chemotherapy depends on the type of cancer you have, the reason for having treatment, the drugs that are used and whether you have side effects. Often people have chemotherapy over 3-6 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 continue for many months or years. If you feel upset or anxious about how long treatment is taking or the impact of side effects, let your treatment team know.

What are the side effects

Chemotherapy drugs can damage healthy, fast-growing cells, such as the new blood cells in the bone marrow or the cells in the mouth, stomach, skin, hair or reproductive organs. When healthy cells are damaged, it 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
  • Thinking and 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 about Chemotherapy, please see these resources

If you are a patient, family or friend, and would like to order a copy of the Understanding Chemotherapy booklet, please call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

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.