What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy means treatment with anti-cancer drugs given to destroy or control cancer cells.  There are over 50 such different drugs, which may be given individually or several different drugs may be given together.  The latter is called combination chemotherapy.

Why is chemotherapy given?

Many types of cancer can be treated with chemotherapy. The aim of the treatment will depend on the type of cancer you have and how advanced it is.  Chemotherapy is given to:

  • Cure the cancer by destroying all the cancer cells
  • Reduce the possibility of cancer coming back through destroying any cancer cells that may be present in your body that are too small to detect – it is important to destroy these cells
  • Control the cancer where chemotherapy is unlikely to cure the cancer but may prevent it from growing for some time
  • Relieve symptoms by shrinking a tumour if it is causing any symptoms.

How does chemotherapy work?

Chemotherapy drugs enter your bloodstream and as a result, are able to reach all parts of your body. This is called systemic treatment (most radiotherapy and surgery treatments are called local treatments because they treat a specific part of the body).  Chemotherapy drugs destroy cancer cells by damaging them so they can’t divide and grow.
They can also affect normal cells which are growing and dividing quickly and damage to normal cells may cause side effects.  These are usually temporary because healthy cells quickly grow back to normal.  Permanent damage is rare with most chemotherapy regimens.

When is chemotherapy given?

Sometimes chemotherapy is used on its own for cancers that respond well to this treatment. However, chemotherapy is often used with other treatments, such as:

  • Neo-adjuvant therapy – chemotherapy given before surgery or radiotherapy to shrink the tumour
  • Adjuvant therapy – chemotherapy used to help destroy any cancer cells that may remain after surgery or radiotherapy.  The aim is to reduce the likelihood of cancer returning in the future
  • Peri-operative therapy – chemotherapy given both before and after surgery
  • Chemo-radiation – chemotherapy combined with radiotherapy
  • Palliative chemotherapy – if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, the chemotherapy drugs carried in your bloodstream can reach these cancer cells. The aim is to help relieve symptoms and slow the growth of the cancer

Chemotherapy and other medicines

While you are having chemotherapy you should tell your doctor about any other medicines you are taking or planning to take, including herbal medicines, vitamins, other dietary supplements and complementary therapies. Some drugs may interfere with your treatment.  If you are admitted to hospital, do bring all your current medicines with you and show them to the doctor or ward nurse so they know what you are taking.  Please ask your hospital doctor before taking any new medicines.

Will I be able to have vaccinations?

During chemotherapy you will not be able to have live virus vaccines.  You may be able to have ‘flu vaccines but it is always important to consult your hospital doctors before having any vaccinations.


Chemotherapy drugs damage fast-growing cells. As well as destroying cancer cells, they also cause damage to normal cells. It is this damage to normal cells that may cause side-effects, which can be acute or late. Acute (immediate) side-effects occur during and immediately after treatment.  Late (delayed) side-effects develop after treatment has been going on for some time and may continue, at least for a while, after treatment is finished.

Everyone reacts differently to chemotherapy and some people may have no side-effects at all. The ones that you may experience with your chemotherapy treatment plan will be discussed with you.  For example, not all chemotherapy drugs cause sickness or hair loss, so do check what is relevant for you.
We can offer help for most side-effects, so please tell your doctor or nurse if you feel any different from normal.
Remember – most of the side-effects of chemotherapy are temporary and will disappear after your treatment has finished.

Urgent side-effects

There are some side effects that need to be treated quickly and it is important that you do not wait until the next morning or after the weekend.

  • Temperature of greater than 37.5°C
  • Shivering episodes*
  • ‘flu-like symptoms*
  • Gum or nose bleeds or unusual bleeding (if bleeding does not stop after ten minutes of pressure)
  • Mouth ulcers that stop you eating or drinking
  • Vomiting (that continues in spite of taking anti-sickness medication)
  • Diarrhoea (four or more bowel movements more than usual or diarrhoea at night)
  • Difficulty with breathing

(*signs of infection)


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