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What Is Chemotherapy?

7th August 2021 by Jack Allan Education

What Is Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment where medicine is used to kill cancer cells.  There are many different types of chemotherapy medicine, but they all work in a similar way.  They stop cancer cells reproducing, which prevents them from growing and spreading in the body.

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 or used before surgery (neoadjuvant chemotherapy)
  • reduce the risk of the cancer coming back after radiotherapy or surgery (adjuvant chemotherapy)
  • relieve symptoms if a cure is not possible (palliative chemotherapy) - Stage 4 Cancer or Secondary Breast Cancer or Metastatic Breast Cancer

The effectiveness of chemotherapy varies significantly. 

Types of chemotherapy


Chemotherapy can be given in several ways. 

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 medicine at home, with regular check-ups in hospital

You may be treated with one type of chemotherapy medicine or a combination of different types and you'll usually have several treatment sessions, which will typically be spread over the course of a few months or longer. 

Side effects of chemotherapy

As well as killing cancer cells, chemotherapy can damage some healthy cells in your 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 and being sick
  • hair loss
  • an increased risk of getting 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.