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Treating Cancer with Chemotherapy

The Basics of Chemotherapy


Updated June 26, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Chemotherapy is a common type of cancer treatment that uses drugs or medications to treat many types of cancer. It works by targeting and eliminating rapidly dividing cancer cells in the body. Chemotherapy is often given for two main reasons. First, chemotherapy may control or eliminate tumors to relieve symptoms, such as pain. This type of chemotherapy is often called palliative chemotherapy. The other main reason to provide chemotherapy is to prevent recurrence after surgery or radiation therapy to control the original tumor. This type of chemotherapy is called adjuvant or neo-adjuvant chemotherapy.

How is Chemotherapy Given?

Chemotherapy drugs are given most often intravenously (IV) or by mouth (orally). There are several other methods of giving chemotherapy, but these are the most common. There is not one universal chemotherapy drug that is used to treat cancer; there are actually several different types, each uniquely effective against specific types of cancer.

The frequency and duration of chemotherapy depends on many factors. The oncologist will develop a treatment plan that is based on type of cancer, stage, other health factors, type of chemotherapy drugs prescribed, and other treatment methods also being used.

Information for specific chemotherapy treatment based on cancer type:

Chemotherapy Side Effects

How your chemotherapy treatment affects you depends on many factors, such as how aggressive treatment is, overall general health, and what chemotherapy drug is being taken. Several medications can be prescribed to combat many of the side effects of treatment. Keeping a pain or symptom journal is an effective way of keeping track of side effects of treatment. This type of journal helps give the doctor more insight into how you are tolerating treatment. It also helps you remember important details that you may forget during your medical appointments.

Common Chemotherapy Side Effects:

Before You Begin Chemotherapy

Ask your oncologist several questions before beginning chemotherapy:
  • What chemotherapy drug is being prescribed?
  • Why was this chemotherapy regimen chosen over others?
  • What is the duration and frequency of treatment?
  • What side effects can I expect?
  • Which side effects require immediate medical attention?
  • How successful is the chemotherapy drug in those with similar case histories?
  • How chemotherapy will chemotherapy affect my daily living?
  • What over the counter medications can I take, such a pain relievers or other medications?
  • Will I need to have someone drive me home after each chemotherapy session?
  • What items you can I bring during sessions, such as an iPod, handheld gaming device or other things to help pass the time?


"Detailed Guide: How Is Cancer Treated." 04 AUG 2007. American Cancer Society. Accessed 06 Dec 2008.

"Chemotherapy PDQ: Treatment Overview." 27 Feb 2007. National Cancer Institute. Accessed 06 Dec 2008.

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