Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment, with medicine used to kill cancer cells. It kills the cancer cells by damaging them, so they can't reproduce and spread.
Why chemotherapy is used
Chemotherapy is used if a cancer has spread or if there's a risk that it will. The main aim of treatment may be:
- to try to cure cancer completely-this is known as curative chemotherapy
- to help make other treatments more effective-for example, chemotherapy can be combined with radiotherapy (where radiation is used to kill cancerous cells), or it can be used before surgery
- to reduce the risk of the cancer returningafter radiotherapy or surgery
- to relieve symptoms-a cure may not be possible for advanced cancer, but chemotherapy may be used to relieve the symptoms and slow it down; this is known as palliative chemotherapy
Less commonly, chemotherapy is used to treat non-cancerous conditions. For example, low doses have been used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
How chemotherapy is used
There are many different types of chemotherapy medication, but they all work in much the same way. Depending on the type of cancer you have, you may be treated with one medicine (monotherapy) or with a combination of medicines (combination therapy).
There are several ways in which chemotherapy medication can be given, including tablets and injections directly into a vein.
The team caring for you will help come up with a treatment plan for your specific circumstances.
Even though chemotherapy is often effective at treating cancer or relieving its symptoms, it does cause side effects.
The medicines used in chemotherapy can't distinguish between fast-growing cancer cells and other types of fast-growing cells, such as blood cells, skin cells and the cells inside the stomach.
This means that most chemotherapy medications have a poisonous effect on the body's cells, causing problems including:
- feeling tired and weak all the time
- feeling and being sick
- hair loss
Some people only have minimal side effects, but for most people, a course of chemotherapy can be unpleasant and upsetting.
Living with and adapting to the side effects of chemotherapy can be challenging. However, it's important to realise that most, if not all, side effects will disappear once the treatment is complete.
There is no risk of the side effects of chemotherapy being passed to other people, including children and pregnant women, if they are in close contact with someone having chemotherapy.