• Chemotherapy, or chemo, is a type of cancer treatment
  • It is very common and uses drugs to kill off the cells that cause cancer
  • It’s given in cycles, with breaks in between
  • The length of time you’ll need chemotherapy for will depend on the type of cancer you have and the stage it’s at.
     

Cancer cells divide fast, and then small cells can break off into your bloodstream. That’s how cancer spreads in your body.

Chemotherapy, or chemo, is one of the most common cancer treatments. It uses drugs to kill off the cells that cause cancer.

Chemotherapy works by attacking and destroying fast-dividing cells. That’s good because it can knock out cancer cells. But chemo also attacks some healthy cells, like hair cells and the cells that line your mouth and stomach. And that can cause some pretty nasty side effects.

 

How does chemotherapy work?

Chemotherapy is a drug treatment.

The drugs are given in cycles. There’ll be a set time where you have the drug treatment and then a set period where you don’t, before the process is repeated.

The time in between drug treatments helps your body to recover from the effects of the chemotherapy, but is short enough to make sure the cancer cells don’t start to grow again.

Chemotherapy can be used on its own to treat cancer and eventually cure it. It’s also used alongside other treatments, like radiotherapy and surgery.

It can be used before surgery to kill cancer cells and shrink a tumour, or after surgery to stop cancer coming back.

And it can be used as a medicine to help you feel better if your cancer is very advanced.

What drugs are used in chemotherapy?

There are lots of different chemotherapy drugs, and your doctors will recommend the best ones for you.

You might be given one drug or a combination, depending on the type of cancer you have.

And you might be given the drugs via an injection into your veins (known as intravenous or IV chemotherapy), or as tablets or medicine.

Chemotherapy treatment plans have been tried and tested over years, so whatever combination of chemotherapy drugs you’re given, you can be sure it’s the best treatment available. 

Read more about the side effects that chemotherapy drugs can cause.

How long does chemotherapy take?

The length of your chemotherapy treatment will depend on the type of cancer you have and the drugs you take.

It might involve daily, weekly or monthly treatment, and can last for between a few months and several years.

This might feel really daunting when you’re first told you need chemotherapy. There aren’t any silly questions, so you can always ask your GP, consultant or care team.

Questions to ask about chemotherapy

Cancer and cancer treatment can be confusing. So never be afraid to ask questions. And if you don’t understand the answers you get, keep asking until you do. If your doctor recommends chemotherapy, you might like to ask:

  • Why is chemotherapy the best option? What are the benefits?
  • How long is my chemotherapy likely to last?
  • How will I be given chemotherapy?
  • Where will I be given it?
  • What are side effects of chemotherapy, and how can we reduce them?
  • What will chemotherapy achieve?
  • How effective is it likely to be?
  • Could any other treatments work?