Chemotherapy is a type of treatment for cancer where medicine is used to kill cancer cells. It can be given either as a tablet, or as an injection or infusion directly into a vein.
Cancer refers to a number of conditions where the body’s cells grow and reproduce uncontrollably. The rapid growth of cancerous cells is known as a malignant tumour. These cells can spread out of the tumour and into other parts of the body to form new tumours.
How chemotherapy is used
There are four main ways that chemotherapy can be used:
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 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
to reduce the risk of the cancer returning after surgery or radiotherapy
Read more about how chemotherapy is carried out.
Chemotherapy is a very effective cancer treatment and has helped save millions of lives. However, it does cause side effects.
The medications used in chemotherapy are not very good at telling the difference between fast-growing cancer cells and other types of fast-growing cells. These include blood cells, skin cells, the cells on the scalp and the cells inside the stomach.
This means that most chemotherapy medications have a poisonous effect on the body's cells. Common side effects include:
- feeling tired and weak all the time
- feeling sick
- being sick
- hair loss, although this can sometimes be prevented using a technique called a cold cap
Read more about the side effects of chemotherapy.
Some people only have minimal side effects. However, for most people, a course of chemotherapy can be very unpleasant and upsetting.
In many cases, having chemotherapy will make you feel worse than the cancer you are being treated for.
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.
In the past, any medication that was used to treat cancer was regarded as chemotherapy. However, over the last twenty years, new types of medication that work in a different way to chemotherapy have been introduced.
These new types of medication are known as targeted therapies. This is because they are designed to target and disrupt one or more of the biological processes that cancerous cells use to grow and reproduce.
In contrast, chemotherapy medications are designed to have a poisonous effect on cancerous cells.