Chemotherapy is medication(s) used to kill cancer cells. The medications are toxic to fast-growing cells like cancer cells.
Chemotherapy may be the main treatment or part of a treatment plan. It can be used to:
Chemotherapy drugs attack fast-growing cells. All cancer cells are fast-growing but certain healthy cells are also fast-growing cells. Chemotherapy can damage these healthy cells which leads to side effects. The exact types of side effects will vary. They will depend on the type of chemotherapy treatment and which healthy cells are affected.
Cells that line the mouth, stomach, and intestines are fast-growing cells. Chemotherapy can damage these cells and cause:
Damage to blood cells can lead to:
Cells at the root of hairs are also fast growing. Damage to these cells causes hair loss.
Other areas that may be affected include:
The medical team will work to find a chemotherapy plan that is most effective against the cancer with the fewest amount of side effects. Other treatments may also help better manage side effects.
Some medication may be needed before treatment such as:
The medical team will talk to you about the best way to deliver the treatment. Chemotherapy drugs may be given by:
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The length of treatment will depend on the type of treatment, the number of medications, and the amount needed. A session may be taking a pill or an infusion over several hours. Some types of chemotherapy may be continuously given through a pump.
The delivery of the chemotherapy will usually not cause pain. Side effects may start in the hours and days after treatment.
Most often, you can leave after the medication is delivered. Some chemotherapy treatments will require a stay in the hospital. This may be about 2-3 days.
A hospital stay may be needed if there are certain complications, such as severe vomiting.
Treatment after chemotherapy may include:
Recovery time at home will depend on the type of treatment and your reaction to it. Some will need longer periods of rest than other and have greater impact on daily tasks.
Follow up tests will be needed to make sure the treatment is working as expected. The tests will also help plan future treatments.
Contact your doctor if you are having difficulty managing chemotherapy or you develop complications such as:
If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
Canadian Cancer Society
Cancer Care Ontario
Chemotherapy and you: Support for people with cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/chemo-and-you. Updated June 2011. Accessed November 22, 2016.
Understanding chemotherapy. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/chemo-side-effects/understandingchemo. Accessed November 22, 2016.
Last reviewed September 2016 by Mohei Abouzied, MD Last Updated: 9/11/2014