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Chemotherapy treatment patient.

Chemotherapy treatment patient.
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2-minute read

Some people with cancer have chemotherapy as part of their treatment. Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer with medicines that are used to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. Sometimes normal cells are also affected by the chemotherapy medicines, and this can cause side effects.

There are many types of chemotherapy medicines. Some are used on their own, and others are used with other cancer treatments.

How does chemotherapy work?

Chemotherapy kills cells. Because cancer cells are growing faster than other cells in the body, chemotherapy kills cancer cells more than other cells. Also, some chemotherapy is designed to specifically attack cancer cells.

Chemotherapy can be used to shrink a cancer, to help other treatment work well, or to reduce the chance of cancer coming back. It can also be part of palliative care.

Chemotherapy can be given in a number of different ways including:

  • directly into a vein (intravenously)
  • by mouth as tablets or capsules
  • as a cream
  • directly injected into different parts of the body
Illustration of how chemotherapy works.
Chemotherapy kills cells, but because cancer cells grows faster than other cells, it will kill more cancer cells than healthy cells.

Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles with breaks in between to allow the rest of your body to recover. Treatment can last for days, weeks, months or longer.

Chemotherapy is most commonly given in hospital as an outpatient. Sometimes an overnight stay in hospital is required. Some types of chemotherapy can be given in the doctor’s office or even at home.

Chemotherapy types

Different drugs or combinations of drugs are used depending on the type of cancer and its stage (which refers to whether or not the cancer has spread, and how far).

Your oncologist (cancer specialist) can advise on the treatments recommended for you.

Chemotherapy side effects

Chemotherapy can affect normal cells too, and can cause side effects. Most people get some side effects.

Different types of chemotherapy cause different side effects, but the most common ones are poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, hair loss, tired muscles, lethargy, infections, bruising, dry eyes and mouth ulcers.

Most side effects are only temporary. However, sometimes chemotherapy can cause long term problems like damage to your heart, kidneys, liver, lungs or brain, or infertility.

Your doctor may prescribe you medicine for the side effects you are experiencing. These medicines can help with nausea, pain, and other issues. However, they can also have side effects of their own, such as diarrhoea and constipation.

For information on managing the side effects of chemotherapy, visit the Cancer Council website or call their support line on 13 11 20.

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Last reviewed: February 2019

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