Chemotherapy is the use of medicines to treat cancer.
The drugs circulate in the blood stream to all parts of the body and attack rapidly growing cells, including cancer cells.
However, chemotherapy also causes temporary damage to normal cells, which leads to side effects. Most side effects are short term and reversible.
The benefits of treatment vary for different patients depending on the type of cancer and how advanced it is. Chemotherapy can be used to:
- Cure cancers – chemotherapy destroys cancer cells
- Reduce the chances of a cancer coming back – chemotherapy can kill cancer cells that may be present in the body but are too small to detect; killing these cells prevents some patients going on to suffer a cancer recurrence in the future
- Relieve symptoms – chemotherapy may shrink a tumour and therefore ease some or all of the symptoms it causes
Chemotherapy can be given:
- By mouth (oral): as a tablet or capsule which can be taken at home. The chemotherapy staff will monitor the treatment carefully
- By injection into a vein (intravenous): as either a short injection or a longer infusion over some hours in hospital, usually as a day case
- By subcutaneous injection (into the skin)
Some treatments involve a combination of intravenous and oral chemotherapy.
The number and frequency of treatments depends on the type of treatment you are having. Each treatment is followed by a rest period of between one to three weeks. This is called a cycle. Some treatments require more than one visit per cycle.
Most treatments are given once every 21 days for 6 cycles.
Depending upon your condition and the reason for the chemotherapy, the treatment will continue for between 9 and 24 weeks.
Occasionally patients will be maintained on chemotherapy indefinitely.
A blood test is usually required before every chemotherapy cycle to make sure you are fit enough to proceed with treatment.
The staff will discuss the timing of your individual treatment with you before it starts.