General Information on Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a treatment used for some types of cancer. This section gives information about chemotherapy. We hope that it answers some of the questions you may have about the treatment and helps you to cope with any side effects it may cause. Where cancer is mentioned, this refers to cancer, leukaemia and lymphoma.

Sometimes chemotherapy is used to treat non-cancerous conditions but often the doses are lower and the side effects may be reduced. This section does not cover the use of chemotherapy for conditions other than cancer.

The section is divided into sections about how the treatment works, how it is given and how to deal with some of the more common side effects. You are likely to have questions and concerns about your own treatment that this information does not cover, as there are over 200 different types of cancer and over 50 chemotherapy drugs, which can be given in various ways. It is best to discuss the details of your own treatment with your doctor, who will be familiar with your particular situation and type of cancer.

If you think that this information has helped you, you can show it to any of your family and friends who may find it useful. They too may want to be informed so they can help you cope with any problems you may have.

What chemotherapy is?

Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells (including leukaemia and lymphoma).

There are over 50 different chemotherapy drugs. Some are given on their own but often several drugs are given together. This is known as combination chemotherapy.

The type of chemotherapy treatment you are given depends on many things, but particularly:the type of cancer you have where the cancer started in your bodywhat the cancer cells look like under the microscope whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body.

Chemotherapy may be used alone to treat some types of cancer. It may also be used with other types of treatment such as surgery, radiotherapy, hormonal therapy, biological therapies, or a combination of these.

How chemotherapy drugs work?

Chemotherapy drugs can stop cancer cells dividing and reproducing themselves. As the drugs are carried in the blood, they can reach cancer cells anywhere in the body. They are also taken up by some healthy cells. Healthy cells can repair the damage caused by chemotherapy, but cancer cells cannot and so they eventually die.

Different chemotherapy drugs damage cancer cells in different ways. If a combination of drugs is used, each drug is chosen because of its different effects.

Unfortunately, as the chemotherapy drugs can also affect some of the healthy cells in your body, they can cause unpleasant side effects. However, damage to the healthy cells is usually temporary and most side effects will disappear once the treatment is over.

Healthy cells in certain parts of the body are especially sensitive to chemotherapy drugs; these parts of the body include:the bone marrow (which makes blood cells)the hair folliclesthe lining of the mouththe digestive system. Chemotherapy is usually given as a series of sessionsof treatment. Each session is followed by a rest period. The session of chemotherapy and the rest period is known as a cycleof treatment. A series of cycles makes up a course of treatment.

Each session of chemotherapy destroys more of the cancer cells, and the rest period allows the normal cells and tissues to recover.

Why chemotherapy is given?

 With some types of cancer, chemotherapy is likely to destroy all the cancer cells and cure the disease.Chemotherapy may also be given after surgery or radiotherapy to destroy any cancer cells that remain.Chemotherapy may be given to shrink a cancer before another treatment such as surgery.It can also be given to shrink and control a cancer to help reduce symptoms and prolong life. This is known as palliative chemotherapy

An overview of the side effects of chemotherapy::

Different chemotherapy drugs cause different side effects. Everyone is different and will react to chemotherapy treatment in a different way. Some people may have very few side effects while others will have a lot. Almost all side effects are only short-term and will gradually disappear once the treatment has stopped.

The main areas of your body that may be affected by chemotherapy are those where normal cells rapidly divide and grow, such as the lining of your mouth, the digestive system, your skin, hair and bone marrow (the spongy material that fills the bones and produces new blood cells).

If you want to know more about the side effects that may be caused by your chemotherapy treatment, ask your doctor or chemotherapy nurse, as they will know the exact drugs you are taking. Although the side effects of chemotherapy can be unpleasant, they need to be weighed against the benefits of the treatment. It is important to tell your doctor or chemotherapy nurse if the treatment is making you feel unwell. You may be able to have medicines to help you, or changes can be made to your treatment to lessen any side effects.

Our information on the individual chemotherapy drugs gives specific details on their side effects.