Overview (What it is, why it is used and how it works)

Chemotherapy is a treatment that uses powerful medication to destroy or stop cells from dividing and multiplying. Cancer cells divide and grow faster than normal cells, which means this treatment impacts abnormal cancer cells more than it affects normal healthy cells. The treating oncologist may prescribe chemotherapy only or in combination with other cancer treatments.


When Chemotherapy is used as a treatment

It is possible to cure cancer completely with curative chemotherapy, while palliative chemotherapy is used to relieve symptoms when a cure is not possible. Chemotherapy can also be used to prevent cancer returning after radiotherapy or surgery.

There are various types of chemotherapy drugs available and the type of chemotherapy drug used will depend on the type of cancer that the patient has.

Treatment cycle

Chemotherapy is administered in treatment cycles followed by a rest period which allows the body to recover. The treatment course plan prescribed for a patient typically consists of multiple treatment cycles.

A treatment plan, may, for example, consist of treatments every day on the first five days of a three-week period, followed by a rest period. Then the cycle and rest period will be repeated.

How Chemotherapy is administered

Chemotherapy is systematic which means it travels throughout the entire body and it can be administered in various ways:

  • Intravenously: into a vein directly into the bloodstream
  • Orally: in the form of a tablet or liquid medication
  • Topically: as a cream that rubbed into the skin
  • Intra-arterially: where the drugs are injected into a main artery that supplies blood to the tumour
  • Intracavitary: in which the drugs are injected into a body cavity
  • Intrathecally: by means of a lumbar puncture which involves injecting the drugs into the spinal fluid between two vertebrae in the spine

Side effects of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can be a very effective treatment but the drugs unfortunately do not target the cancer cells only. Healthy cells are also destroyed during treatment which may results in a number of side effects which could include:

  • A low blood cell count
  • Inflammation of, or sores on the mucous membranes such as the lining of the mouth
  • Depression
  • Organ damage
  • Hair loss
  • Digestive issues such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, loss of appetite and change in taste
  • Anxiety, restlessness, dizziness and fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Weight changes