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Cancer chemotherapy; Cancer drug therapy; Cytotoxic chemotherapy

The term chemotherapy is used to describe cancer-killing drugs. Chemotherapy may be used to:

  • Cure the cancer
  • Shrink the cancer
  • Prevent the cancer from spreading
  • Relieve symptoms the cancer may be causing



Depending on the type of cancer and where it is found, chemotherapy drugs may be given different ways, including:

  • Injections or shots into the muscles
  • Injections or shots under the skin
  • Into an artery
  • Into a vein (intravenous, or IV)
  • Pills taken by mouth
  • Shots into the fluid around the spinal cord or brain

When chemotherapy is given over a longer period, a thin catheter can be placed into a large vein near the heart. This is called a central line. The catheter is placed during a minor surgery.

There are many types of catheters, including:

  • Central venous catheter
  • Central venous catheter with a port
  • Percutaneously inserted central catheter (PICC)

A central line can stay in the body over a long period of time. It will need to be flushed on a weekly to monthly basis to prevent blood clots from forming inside the central line.

Different chemotherapy drugs may be given at the same time or after each other. Radiation therapy may be received before, after, or during chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy is most often given in cycles. These cycles may last 1 day, several days, or a few weeks or more. There will usually be a rest period when no chemotherapy is given between each cycle. A rest period may last for days, weeks, or months. This allows the body and blood counts to recover before the next dose.

Often, chemotherapy is given at a special clinic or at the hospital. Some people are able to receive chemotherapy in their home. If home chemotherapy is given, home health nurses will help with the medicine and IVs. The person getting the chemotherapy and their family members will receive special training.


The different types of chemotherapy include:

  • Standard chemotherapy, which works by killing cancer cells and some normal cells.
  • Targeted treatment and immunotherapy zero in on specific targets (molecules) in or on cancer cells.


Because these medicines travel through the blood to the entire body, chemotherapy is described as a bodywide treatment.

As a result, chemotherapy may damage or kill some normal cells. These include bone marrow cells, hair follicles, and cells in the lining of the mouth and the digestive tract.

When this damage occurs, there can be side effects. Some people who receive chemotherapy:

  • Are more likely to have infections
  • Become tired more easily
  • Bleed too much, even during everyday activities
  • Feel pain or numbness from nerve damage
  • Have a dry mouth, mouth sores, or swelling in the mouth
  • Have a poor appetite or lose weight
  • Have an upset stomach, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Lose their hair
  • Have problems with thinking and memory ("chemo brain")

Side effects of chemotherapy depend on many things, including the type of cancer and which drugs are being used. Each person reacts differently to these drugs. Some newer chemotherapy drugs that better target cancer cells may cause fewer or different side effects.

Your health care provider will explain what you can do at home to prevent or treat side effects. These measures include:

  • Being careful with pets and other animals to avoid catching infections from them
  • Eating enough calories and protein to keep your weight up
  • Preventing bleeding, and what to do if bleeding occurs
  • Eating and drinking safely
  • Washing your hands often with soap and water

You will need to have follow-up visits with your provider during and after chemotherapy. Blood tests and imaging tests, such as x-rays, MRI, CT, or PET scans will be done to:

  • Monitor how well the chemotherapy is working
  • Watch for damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, blood, and other parts of the body

Test Your Chemotherapy IQ

  • The goal of chemotherapy is to:


    A. Cure cancer


    B. Keep cancer from spreading


    C. Relieve cancer symptoms


    D. All of the above

    Correct Answer
  • Chemotherapy is the best treatment for all forms of cancer.


    A. True


    B. False

    Correct Answer
  • Chemotherapy is given by:


    A. Injection


    B. Mouth


    C. Intravenous line (IV)

    Correct Answer
  • Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles.


    A. True


    B. False

    Correct Answer
  • Taking vitamins and dietary supplements during chemotherapy:


    A. Is always a good idea


    B. Is always dangerous


    C. May be OK if you check with your doctor

    Correct Answer
  • Besides attacking cancer cells, chemotherapy may damage healthy cells in the:


    A. Hair


    B. Lining of the digestive tract


    C. Bone marrow


    D. All of the above

    Correct Answer
  • If you lose your hair during chemotherapy, it will never grow back.


    A. True


    B. False

    Correct Answer
  • To cope with a poor appetite during chemotherapy:


    A. Eat low-calorie foods


    B. Only eat when you are hungry


    C. Eat 5 or 6 small meals a day

    Correct Answer
  • To prevent infections during or soon after chemotherapy:


    A. Be careful what you eat or drink


    B. Wash your hands often


    C. Stay away from crowds and people were sick


    D. Be careful with pets and animals


    E. All of the above

    Correct Answer
  • It's impossible to work while receiving chemotherapy.


    A. True


    B. False

    Correct Answer


Collins JM. Cancer pharmacology. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2014:chap 29.

Doroshow JH. Approach to the patient with cancer. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 179.

National Cancer Institute website. Chemotherapy to treat cancer. Updated April 29, 2015. Accessed May 15, 2018.

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      Review Date: 4/2/2018

      Reviewed By: Richard LoCicero, MD, private practice specializing in hematology and medical oncology, Longstreet Cancer Center, Gainesville, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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