Treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. Chemotherapy may be given by mouth, injection, or infusion, or on the skin, depending on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. It may be given alone or with other treatments, such as surgery, radiation therapy, or biologic therapy.

Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer with chemical drugs with the aim to destroy cancer cells. Although such treatment potentially also affects normal cells, these cells have the ability to repair themselves, whilst damage to cancer cells is usually of a more permanent nature.

Combination chemotherapy forms the basis of most chemotherapy treatment. The goal is to use different drugs that complement each other in their destructive effects on cancer cells whilst reducing side effects and toxic effects on normal cells. This can be achieved because of the different mechanisms of action and side effect profiles.

Goals of chemotherapy

  • to destroy cancer cells
  • to shrink a tumour before other treatments
  • to destroy cancer cells after other treatments

Chemotherapy is given as

  • definitive therapy – when the best chance of cure is with chemotherapy
  • neo–adjuvant therapy – prior to surgery or radiation to reduce tumour burden prior to definitive therapy with either modality
  • combination therapy with radiotherapy – either sequentially or concurrently, to enhance the effects of radiation (chemo radiation)
  • secondary therapy – to try cure metastatic disease
  • palliative therapy – to improve specific symptoms and enhance quality of life

Drugs are given in different ways. The four most common methods are

  • intravenous (IV)
  • by mouth
  • intramuscular
  • intrathecal

The chosen method of administration is based on diagnosis and the drug’s characteristics.

Some medications are taken by mouth in the form of a pill, capsule or liquid.

The term intramuscular means that the drug is injected into the muscle, usually in the arm, thigh or buttock. Some drugs may be injected into the tissue under the skin rather than into the muscle. This is referred to as a subcutaneous injection.

Giving medicine intravenously or directly into a vein is a very common method. Medication flows from a plastic bag, through tubing, into the bloodstream. Sometimes a syringe is used to push the drugs through the tubing.

Certain types of leukaemia and lymphoma tend to spread to the nervous system. To prevent or to treat this, a physician may perform a spinal tap and inject chemotherapy into the spinal fluid to destroy cancer cells. This is known as intrathecal delivery.

Side effects
The most common side effects of drugs involve the cells that comprise the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, the skin and scalp (hair follicles), and the marrow. Each of these parts of the body has a common characteristic: as part of their normal functions, they all have rapid cell turnover (growth of new cells to replace old cells).

Clinical trials / Research
Cancercare is extensively involved in clinical research. The research is conducted in collaboration with international pharmaceutical companies and recognised cancer research groups from both Europe and the United States of America.

Goals of clinical research
All advances in chemotherapy in the past decade are a direct result of clinical research. We are proud to offer our patients the opportunity to participate in these advances and have access to new and exciting drugs undergoing development.


Download the Cancercare booklet on Chemotherapy here

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