Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment where medicine is used to kill cancer cells.
There are many different types of chemotherapy medicine, but they all work in a similar way.
They stop cancer cells reproducing, which prevents them from growing and spreading in the body.
When chemotherapy is used
Chemotherapy may be used if cancer has spread or there's a risk it will.
It can be used to:
- try to cure the cancer completely (curative chemotherapy)
- make other treatments more effective – for example, it can be combined with radiotherapy (chemoradiation) or used before surgery (neo-adjuvant chemotherapy)
- reduce the risk of the cancer coming back after radiotherapy or surgery (adjuvant chemotherapy)
- relieve symptoms if a cure is not possible (palliative chemotherapy)
The effectiveness of chemotherapy varies significantly. Ask your doctors about the chances of treatment being successful for you.
Types of chemotherapy
Chemotherapy can be given in several ways. Your doctors will recommend the best type for you.
The most common types are:
- chemotherapy given into a vein (intravenous chemotherapy) – this is usually done in hospital and involves medicine being given through a tube in a vein in your hand, arm or chest
- chemotherapy tablets (oral chemotherapy) – this usually involves taking a course of medicine at home, with regular check-ups in hospital
You may be treated with one type of chemotherapy medicine or a combination of different types.
You'll usually have several treatment sessions, which will typically be spread over the course of a few months.
Side effects of chemotherapy
As well as killing cancer cells, chemotherapy can damage some healthy cells in your body, such as blood cells, skin cells and cells in the stomach.
This can cause a range of unpleasant side effects, such as:
- feeling tired most of the time
- feeling and being sick
- hair loss
- an increased risk of getting infections
- a sore mouth
- dry, sore or itchy skin
- diarrhoea or constipation
Many of these side effects can be treated or prevented and most, if not all, will pass after treatment stops.
Page last reviewed: 29 January 2020
Next review due: 29 January 2023