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).
Learn more about:
- How chemotherapy works
- How chemotherapy is used
- How cancer is treated
- Why have chemotherapy?
- Video: What is chemotherapy?
How chemotherapy works
All cells in the body grow by splitting or dividing into 2 cells. Cancer cells are cells that divide rapidly and grow out of control. 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.
Occasionally, chemotherapy is delivered directly to the cancer. This is known as local chemotherapy.
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 used to treat cancer, but you may also have other treatments.
How cancer is treated
Cancers are usually treated with surgery, drug therapy and radiation therapy (radiotherapy). The types of drugs (medicines) used for the treatment of cancer include chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.
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 can travel throughout the body. This is called systemic treatment. Drug therapies include:
|radiation therapy||The use of a controlled dose of radiation to kill or damage cancer cells so they cannot grow, multiply or spread.|
Because cancer treatment is becoming more tailored to individuals, the treatment you have may be different to the treatment other people have, even when the 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)
- specific features of the cancer cell
- your general health, age and treatment preferences
- what treatments are currently available and whether there are any clinical trials suitable for you.
Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for free booklets and information about different cancer types and their treatments.
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 about chemotherapy for children, and check out:
- Cancer Australia Children’s Cancer – for information about children’s cancers.
- Camp Quality – supports children aged 0–15 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.
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 reducing or ending the signs and symptoms of cancer (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 that the other treatment (usually surgery) is more effective.
If given after (adjuvant therapy), the aim is to get rid of any remaining cancer cells to try to cure the cancer. 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. In rare cases, palliative treatment can also achieve remission.
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. Called maintenance chemotherapy, it may be given with other drug therapies to stop 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.
Prof Timothy Price, Medical Oncologist, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, SA; Graham Borgas, Consumer: Dr Joanna Dewar, Medical Oncologist and Clinical Professor, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and The University of Western Australia, WA; Justin Hargreaves, Medical Oncology Nurse Practitioner, Bendigo Health Cancer Centre, VIC; Angela Kritikos, Senior Oncology Dietitian, Dietetic Department, Liverpool Hospital, NSW; Dr Kate Mahon, Director of Medical Oncology, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; Georgie Pearson, Consumer; Chris Rivett, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Marissa Ryan, Acting Consultant Pharmacist (Cancer Services), Pharmacy Department, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD.
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