Chemotherapy

Introduction

The aim of this information is to help you understand what patients can expect before, during and after chemotherapy. We hope that it will give you some helpful insight that will be useful in understanding chemotherapy treatment.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is used to describe drugs that fight cancer. There are different groups of anti-cancer drugs but the main group is cytotoxic drugs.

Newer anti-cancer drugs called targeted agents, like Herceptin, may also be used, but cytotoxic drugs are still the most widely used. This article is about cytotoxic drugs.

How does chemotherapy work?

The word ‘cytotoxic’ means ‘toxic to cells’. Chemotherapy works by stopping or slowing the growth of cells. It affects the growth of all cells in the body and not just cancer cells.

It is given in blocks, called cycles, to allow healthy cells to recover. The patient’s doctor will explain their treatment plan.

When is chemotherapy used?

Chemotherapy can be used in the following ways:

  • Neo-adjuvant treatment – this is when chemotherapy is given to the patient before they have surgery or radiotherapy to try to shrink the tumour.
  • Adjuvant treatment – this is when chemotherapy is given to the patient after surgery or radiotherapy when there are no visible signs of cancer. It aims to reduce the risk of cancer coming back in the future.
  • Chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy – this is when chemotherapy is given to the patient at the same time as radiotherapy.
  • Curative chemotherapy – this is when chemotherapy is given to the patient to try and completely eradicate or ‘cure’ the cancer.
  • Palliative chemotherapy – this is when chemotherapy is given to the patient to shrink the cancer, slow its growth or reduce the rate of spread. Palliative chemotherapy may also help reduce any symptoms caused by the cancer.
Last updated: 01 August 2013

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