Chemotherapy: Everything You Need To Know

Medically Reviewed by Dr. K on 28 April 2021

What is chemotherapy?

It’s also known as “chemo,"  it’s a cancer treatment that utilizes medications to destroy cancer cells.

How does chemotherapy work?

It is designed to fight cells that grow and divide rapidly, such as cancer cells. Chemotherapy, unlike radiation or surgery, which address specific areas, will work on the whole body. However, certain fast-growing healthy cells, such as those in the skin, hair, intestines, and bone marrow, may be affected. This is what triggers some of the treatment’s side effects.

What does chemotherapy do?

It depends on the kind of cancer you have and how much it has progressed.

  • Cure: In some cases, the treatment will kill cancer cells to the extent that the doctor can’t detect them in the body anymore. The ideal scenario is that they never grow back, however, this is not always the case.
  • Control: In some cases, it may only be possible to prevent cancer from spreading to other areas of the body or delay the growth of cancer tumours.
  • Ease symptoms: In some cases, chemotherapy is only used to minimize tumours that inflict pain or pressure. It cannot cure or control the spread of cancer. These tumours sometimes continue to grow back.

How is chemotherapy used?

Sometimes, it may treat cancer on its own, however, it’s most often used in conjunction with:

  • Surgery: Cancerous tumours or tissue, as well as organs infected by cancerous cells, are removed by a doctor.
  • Radiation therapy: To destroy cancer cells, a doctor uses invisible radioactive particles. It may be transmitted by a special machine that bombards parts of your body from the outside, or it could be delivered by placing radioactive material on, near, or even inside your body.
  • Biological therapy: To destroy cancer cells, living material in the form of bacteria, vaccines, or antibodies are carefully added.

Chemotherapy may be used to:

  • Neoadjuvant chemotherapy is used to shrink a tumour before radiation therapy or surgery.
  • Adjuvant chemotherapy is used to kill all remaining cancer cells after surgery or radiation therapy.
  • Improve the efficacy of other therapies (biological or radiation).
  • To kill cancer cells that return or spread to other areas of the body.

How long does chemotherapy last?

That depends on:

  • The type of cancer you’ve been diagnosed with.
  • How much it has progressed
  • The treatment’s goal: to cure, control growth, or relieve pain.
  • The type of chemotherapy.
  • Your body’s reaction to the treatment.

Chemotherapy may be done in “cycles," which entails a duration of treatment followed by a period of rest. A four-week cycle, for example, might consist of one week of therapy followed by three weeks of rest. The time you spend resting helps your body to produce new, healthier cells. It’s best not to miss a treatment after a cycle has been mapped out, although the doctor may recommend it if side effects are serious. Your medical team will most likely devise a new cycle to assist you with getting back on track.

How is chemotherapy given?

  • Injection: The drugs are injected into your hip, thigh, or arm, or into the fatty portion of your arm, leg, or stomach, just under the skin.
  • Intra-arterial (IA): Via a needle or a soft, thin tube (catheter), the drugs are injected directly into the artery that feeds the cancer.
  • Intraperitoneal (IP): The drugs are administered to the liver, intestines, stomach, and ovaries, which are all located in the peritoneal cavity. It’s done during surgery or through a tube with a special port that your doctor inserts into you.
  • Intrathecal (IT) chemotherapy: The cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which surrounds the spinal cord and the brain, is injected with medicine.
  • Intravenous (IV): The chemotherapy goes directly into a vein.
  • Topical: The drugs in the form of cream are applied directly onto your skin.
  • Oral: You consume the drugs in the form of a pill or liquid.

How does intravenous (IV) delivery work in chemotherapy?

Needle: Drugs may be injected into a vein in the hand or lower arm using a small needle. The needle is inserted by your nurse and removed once the procedure is over. If you experience discomfort or burning during treatment, notify your doctor immediately.

Catheter: It’s a thin, soft tube. One end of the catheter is inserted into a large vein, usually in your chest. The other end remaining outside your body is used to administer chemotherapy or other drugs, or to extract blood. It normally remains in place even after you’ve completed all of the treatment cycles. Keep an eye out for symptoms of infection near the catheter.

Port: It’s a small disc implanted beneath the surface of your skin by your doctor. It’s connected to a tube (catheter) which is linked to a large vein, normally in your chest. A nurse may use a needle to administer chemotherapy drugs or draw blood into and from your port. For treatments that last more than a day, the needle may be fixed in place. If you see any indications of infection (redness, pain, heat, discharge) near your port, notify your doctor.

Pump: It’s usually attached to catheters or ports, and it regulates the volume and speed at which chemotherapy drugs enter your body. This pump may be carried with you or implanted under the skin by a surgeon.

How will I feel during chemotherapy?

There’s no way to be certain. It depends on your general health, the type of cancer you have, its stage, and the level and type of chemotherapy medications you’re taking. It’s even possible that your genes play a role.

During chemotherapy, it’s normal to feel sick or exhausted. You could prepare for this by arranging for others to take you to and from treatment. On the day before and the day of surgery, you should also rest. If necessary, it may be useful to seek assistance with food or child care. Any of the more severe side effects of chemotherapy can be manageable with the support of the doctor.

Can I work during chemotherapy?

It depends on the kind of job you do and how you are feeling. When you’re not feeling good, see if you can work shorter hours or at home on those days. Employers are required by law to modify your work schedule while you are undergoing cancer treatment. A social worker will be able to assist you with understanding what the law permits.

How much does chemotherapy cost?

It depends on the type of chemotherapy, the amount you go through, and the frequency at which you go through it. It also depends on where you live and whether you get treatment at home, in a clinic, or in a hospital. Be sure you read your health insurance agreement to figure out just what it can and can’t cover, as well as if you should get your chemotherapy treatment from a doctor of your choice.


Referenced on  20/4/2021

  1. NIH National Cancer Institute: “Radiation Therapy for Cancer,” “Biological Therapies for Cancer,” “Chemotherapy and You: Support for People With Cancer.”
  2. National Cancer Society: “What Is Targeted Cancer Therapy?”
  3. “Intraperitoneal
  4. Chemotherapy (IP Chemo).”
    Chemotherapy. (2018).
  5. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2020). Chemotherapy.
  6. Questions to ask about chemotherapy. (2019).

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