Chemotherapy (sometimes just called “chemo”) is the use of drugs to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. The drugs are also called cytotoxics, which means toxic to cells (cyto). Some drugs come from natural sources such as plants, while others are completely made in a laboratory.
Learn more about:
- How chemotherapy works
- How cancer is treated
- How chemotherapy is used
- Why have chemotherapy?
- Video: What is chemotherapy?
How chemotherapy works
All cells in the body grow by splitting or dividing into two cells. Chemotherapy damages cells that are dividing rapidly.
Most chemotherapy drugs enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body to target rapidly dividing cancer cells in the organs and tissues. This is known as systemic treatment. Sometimes chemotherapy is delivered directly to the cancer. This is known as local chemotherapy.
How cancer is treated
Cancers are usually treated with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy (radiotherapy). Other drug treatments, such as hormone therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy, can also be used to treat some types of cancer.
These treatments may be used on their own, in combination (for example, you may have chemotherapy together with radiation therapy) or one after the other (for example, chemotherapy first then surgery).
Types of cancer treatments
|surgery||An operation to remove cancer or repair a part of the body affected by cancer.|
Drugs that enter the bloodstream so the treatment can travel throughout the body. This is called systemic treatment, and includes:
|radiation therapy||The use of targeted radiation to kill or damage cancer cells so they cannot grow, multiply or spread. Treatment aims to affect only the part of the body where the radiation is targeted.|
Because cancer treatment is becoming more personalised, you may have different treatments from other people, even if their cancer type is the same. The treatment recommended by your doctor will depend on:
- the type of cancer you have
- where the cancer began (the primary site)
- whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body (metastatic or secondary cancer)
- your general health, age and treatment preferences
- what treatments are currently available and whether there are any clinical trials suitable for you.
Chemotherapy for children
The information here is for adults having chemotherapy, although much of it will also be relevant for children. Talk to your treatment team for specific information and age-appropriate resources about chemotherapy for children.
You can also check out:
- Cancer Australia Children’s Cancer – for information about children’s cancers.
- Camp Quality – supports children aged 0–13 and their families. Call 1300 662 267.
- CanTeen – supports young people aged 12–25 who have been affected by cancer. Call 1800 226 833.
- See Talking to kids about cancer or listen to our Explaining Cancer to Kids podcast.
How chemotherapy is used
There are many different types of chemotherapy drugs, and each type destroys or shrinks cancer cells in a different way. You might have treatment with a single chemotherapy drug or several drugs. When more than one drug is given, this is called combination chemotherapy and it aims to attack cancer cells in several ways.
The chemotherapy drugs you have depend on the type of cancer. This is because different drugs work on different cancer types. Sometimes chemotherapy is the only treatment needed, but you may also have other treatments.
Why have chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy can be used for different reasons:
To achieve remission or cure (curative chemotherapy)
Chemotherapy may be given as the main treatment with the aim of causing the signs and symptoms of cancer to reduce or disappear (often referred to as remission or complete response).
To help other treatments
Chemotherapy can be given before or after other treatments such as surgery or radiation therapy. If used before (neoadjuvant therapy), the aim is to shrink the cancer so the other treatment (usually surgery) is more effective. If given after (adjuvant therapy), the aim is to get rid of any remaining cancer cells. Chemotherapy is often given with radiation therapy to make the radiation therapy more effective (chemoradiation).
To control the cancer
Even if chemotherapy cannot achieve remission or complete response (see above), it may be used to control how the cancer is growing and stop it spreading for a period of time. This is known as palliative chemotherapy.
To relieve symptoms
By shrinking a cancer that is causing pain and other symptoms, chemotherapy can improve quality of life. This is also called palliative chemotherapy.
To stop cancer coming back
Chemotherapy might continue for months or years after remission. This is called maintenance chemotherapy and it may be given with other drug therapies. It aims to prevent or delay the cancer returning.
When you’ve got to have chemo, it’s quite frightening because you’ve only heard bad things about it. But then I spoke to the oncologist and he explained the benefits.Phil
Video: What is chemotherapy?
Watch this short video to see Medical Oncologist Prof Fran Boyle explain more about the role of chemotherapy, how you get it, and possible side effects.
Podcast: Making Treatment Decisions
Clinical A/Prof Rosemary Harrup, Director, Cancer and Blood Services, Royal Hobart Hospital, TAS; Katie Benton, Advanced Dietitian, Cancer Care, Sunshine Coast Hospital and Queensland Health, QLD; Gillian Blanchard, Oncology Nurse Practitioner, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW; Stacey Burton, Consumer; Dr Fiona Day, Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Calvary Mater Newcastle, and Conjoint Senior Lecturer, The University of Newcastle, NSW; Andrew Greig, Consumer; Steve Higgs, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Prof Desmond Yip, Clinical Director, Department of Medical Oncology, The Canberra Hospital, ACT.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Coping with cancer?
Ask a health professional or someone who’s been there, or find a support group or forum
Looking for transport, accommodation or home help?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment