Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

Chemotherapy treatment patient.

Chemotherapy treatment patient.
beginning of content


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.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2019

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Chemotherapy | Cancer Council

What is chemotherapy? Find credible information on chemotherapy, including its side effects, how and why it's used, how it's given and more

Read more on Cancer Council Australia website

Chemotherapy - Cancer Treatments | Youth Cancer Services

Chemotherapy, or 'chemo', is the most common form of cancer treatment. Chemotherapy uses drugs called cytotoxics to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells.

Read more on CanTeen website

Stem cell transplant - Cancer Treatments

A stem cell transplant involves taking cells from your blood before chemotherapy and then returning stem cells afterwards.

Read more on CanTeen website

Tiredness - Cancer Treatment Side Effects | YCS

Feeling tired and not having your usual ‘get up and go’ is the most common side effect of chemotherapy.

Read more on CanTeen website

Lymphoma treatment | Cancer Council Victoria

An explanation of the process for treating lymphoma including chemotherapy, radiotherapy, antibody therapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, stem cell or bone marrow transplantation and more.

Read more on Cancer Council Victoria website

Cancer | Australian Red Cross Lifeblood

Cancer can result in the need for a transfusion for a number of reasons including surgery, side effects of chemotherapy and as a result of the cancer itself.

Read more on Australian Red Cross Lifeblood website

Treatment options for cancer - NT.GOV.AU

Surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy, steroid therapy, transplants and alternative treatments for cancer.

Read more on NT Health website

Acute promyelocytic leukaemia treatment - Leukaemia Foundation

Acute promyelocytic leukaemia treatment Listen How is APML treated? The treatment for APML differs from the treatment of other types of acute leukaemia because it involves the use of a “retinoid” drug, which is not a chemotherapy drug; it is actually a derivative of vitamin A, which works by making the immature promyelocytes (the identifiable leukaemic cells in APML) mature properly

Read more on Leukaemia Foundation website

Childhood ALL treatment - Leukaemia Foundation

Childhood ALL treatment Listen How is ALL treated in children? ALL usually progresses quite quickly so treatment needs to begin as soon as it is diagnosed

Read more on Leukaemia Foundation website

Childhood lymphoma treatment - Leukaemia Foundation

Childhood lymphoma treatment Listen How is childhood lymphoma treated? Treatment varies depending on the exact type of lymphoma your child has, where it has spread in their body and how fast it is likely to grow

Read more on Leukaemia Foundation website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo