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Chemotherapy

Find out what chemotherapy is, how it works, when it's used, what it involves and what side effects it can cause.

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment where medication is used to kill cancer cells.

There are many different types of chemotherapy medication, but they all work in a similar way.

They stop cancer cells reproducing, which prevents them from growing and spreading in the body.

This page covers:

When chemotherapy is used

Types of chemotherapy

Side effects

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 isn't 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 medication 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.

Read more about what happens during chemotherapy.

Side effects of chemotherapy

As well as killing cancer cells, chemotherapy can damage some healthy cells in the 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 sick and vomiting
  • hair loss 
  • an increased risk of picking up 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.

Read more about the side effects of chemotherapy.


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