Introduction of chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a type of treatment for cancer where medicine is used to kill cancer cells. 

It kills the cancer cells by damaging them so they cannot reproduce and spread.

Why chemotherapy is used

Chemotherapy is used if a cancer has spread or if there is a risk that it will. The main aim of treatment may be:

  • to try to cure cancer completely – this is known as curative chemotherapy
  • to help make other treatments more effective – for example, chemotherapy can be combined with radiotherapy (where radiation is used to kill cancerous cells), or it can be used before surgery
  • to reduce the risk of the cancer returning after surgery or radiotherapy
  • to relieve symptoms – a cure may not be possible for advanced cancer, but chemotherapy may be used to relieve the symptoms and slow the spread of the condition. This is known as palliative chemotherapy

Less commonly, chemotherapy is used to treat non-cancerous conditions. For example, low doses have been used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

How chemotherapy is used

There are many different types of chemotherapy medication, but they all work in much the same way. Depending on the type of cancer you have, you may be given treatment with one medication (monotherapy) or with a combination of medications (combination therapy).

There are several ways in which chemotherapy medication can be given, including tablets and injections directly into a vein.

The team caring for you will help come up with a treatment plan for your specific circumstances.

Read more about how chemotherapy is carried out and who can use chemotherapy.

Side effects

Chemotherapy is a very effective cancer treatment that has helped save millions of lives, but it does cause side effects.

The medications used in chemotherapy cannot tell the difference between fast-growing cancer cells and other types of fast-growing cells, such as blood cells, skin cells and the cells inside the stomach.

This means that most chemotherapy medications have a poisonous effect on the body’s cells, causing problems that can include:

  • feeling tired and weak all the time
  • feeling and being sick 
  • hair loss

Some people only have minimal side effects. However, for most people, a course of chemotherapy can be very unpleasant and upsetting.

Living with and adapting to the side effects of chemotherapy can be challenging. But it’s important to realise that most, if not all, side effects will disappear once the treatment is complete.

Some people who are about to start chemotherapy are concerned that the harmful effects of chemotherapy can be passed to other people, particularly people who are vulnerable, such as children or pregnant women. However, there is no risk associated with coming into close contact with someone who is having chemotherapy.

Read more about the possible side effects of chemotherapy.

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