Let's talk: what you need to know about chemotherapy

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi
Hand with chemotherapy drip
Chemotherapy is a treatment for some cancers. Understanding how it works and the possible side effects can help you get organised and feel more in control. Here’s what you need to know

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If you need chemotherapy, it’s completely normal to feel worried and overwhelmed. But discovering more about this type of treatment can help you prepare and feel less anxious.

Chemotherapy is most commonly used to treat cancer, alongside other treatments, such as surgery and radiotherapy. But it’s also used for other conditions, including autoimmune diseases, like Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

There are many different types of chemotherapy drugs but they all work in a similar way. Chemotherapy destroys cancer cells in your body, and it prevents these cells from dividing, growing and producing more cells.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is a systemic medication, which means it can treat cancer cells almost anywhere in the body due to it circulating through the bloodstream.

Chemotherapy is a type of anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drug treatment that destroys cancer cells or stops them from dividing and multiplying uncontrollably.

There are billions of individual cells in our body tissues. Every time a new cell is formed, it goes through a cell cycle. Chemotherapy attacks cells during specific parts of the cell cycle. Cancer cells tend to form new cells at a faster rate, making them a better target for chemotherapy.

When is chemotherapy used?

Chemotherapy may be used as part of your treatment plan. What chemotherapy you take and whether it’s suitable for you depends on several factors, including:

  • Your general health
  • The type of cancer you have
  • Whether the cancer has spread
  • Where the cancer is in your body

Chemotherapy can also be used to:

  • Eliminate all cancerous cells (curative chemotherapy)
  • Reduce the risk of cancer coming back after radiotherapy or surgery (adjuvant chemotherapy)
  • Make another treatment more effective – it can be used before surgery to shrink large tumours (neoadjuvant chemotherapy) or in combination with radiotherapy
  • Treat cancer that’s spread to other parts of your body
  • Relieve symptoms and improve your quality of life if a cure isn’t possible (palliative chemotherapy)

Chemotherapy can be combined with radiotherapy, but the treatment is different as radiotherapy only treats a specific area of the body.

Why does chemotherapy cause side effects?

As well as destroying cancer cells, chemotherapy can also affect some of the healthy cells in your body. Some of these cells are more sensitive to the medication, particularly those in the hair follicles, bone marrow, mouth and digestive tract.

Chemotherapy can damage these cells and this causes side effects. Some of the most common include:

Everyone reacts differently to chemotherapy, and some people have more side effects than others. It’s important to remember that healthcare professionals are there to support you throughout the whole treatment.

Always let a doctor or nurse know if you’re having physical or mental side effects that you’re struggling with.

Can chemotherapy cause long-term side effects?

Although most side effects are temporary, sometimes they can cause long-term changes. Some chemotherapy drugs can cause:

  • Early menopause
  • Damage to the nerves connecting to the brain, spinal cord and the rest of the body (peripheral neuropathy)
  • Problems with your fertility

If you’re affected by any of these, a doctor can help to support you.

What are the different types of chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy can be given in several ways depending on your treatment plan and the type of cancer you have.

Chemotherapy is most commonly given:

- By drip or injection directly into a vein Known as intravenous chemotherapy, this is usually given in a hospital

- By mouth as capsules or tablets Known as oral chemotherapy, you will usually take the medication at home

You might have chemotherapy consisting of just one drug but it’s more usual to take them as a combination of two or more.

How long does chemotherapy usually take?

When you have chemotherapy, you’ll usually have a course of treatment rather than a single treatment. One course of chemotherapy may last between 3-6 months, but you may receive it for shorter or longer periods depending on your type of cancer and the chemotherapy you’re having.

During a course of chemotherapy, you can have around 4-8 cycles of treatment. A cycle of treatment is made up of your chemotherapy and rest period, which allows your body to recover from the side effects. A doctor will decide on the number of cycles you need to treat the cancer.

Advice for looking after your mental wellbeing

Experiencing a cancer diagnosis can feel like your world is being turned upside down. Understandably, you might feel worried and overwhelmed.

Taking care of your mental wellbeing and making small lifestyle changes can help you cope during treatment, as well as recover better.

Think about sharing your experiences with your friends and family, try to eat as healthy diet as possible and try to be physically active whenever you can.

One study found that emotional support along with up-to-date information during chemotherapy made a significant difference to the quality of life of someone with cancer.

What support is available?

From the time you’re diagnosed, there’s support available. You can use:

  • Macmillan, Cancer Research UK and Maggie’s for advice, information and support
  • Support from your specialist nurse or other members of your medical team
  • Support groups, helplines and online forums or chats for your cancer type or cancer in general
  • Online communities coordinated by people who have experienced cancer treatment

If you have any concerns about chemotherapy or your cancer diagnosis, speak to a doctor or cancer nurse who will be able to help you access support.

When should I speak to a doctor?

If you’re struggling with specific side effects of chemotherapy or need mental health support, make an appointment to speak to a doctor.

Speak to a doctor or your care team immediately if you are having chemotherapy and experiencing any of the following symptoms:

  • A high temperature
  • Diarrhoea
  • Being sick
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Flu-like symptoms, such as muscle aches or feeling hot and shivery
  • Redness, soreness, swelling or discharge of liquid around a wound or where you have had an intravenous or catheter line into your veins

This article has been medically reviewed by Dr Bryony Henderson.

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