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Chemotherapy for Kids

What is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy, or “chemo,” is the treatment of cancer using powerful medicines. These medicines work to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing. 

Each drug works differently. In general, chemotherapy drugs work by interfering with cells as they divide.

The specific type of medicine and how it is given depends on many factors:

  • Type and stage of cancer
  • Goals of treatment
  • Other therapies used

Why Might My Child Need Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy can be used to:

  • Cure cancer
  • Control cancer
  • Ease the symptoms of cancer 

It may be used alone or with other treatments such as surgery and radiation therapy. For example, some patients receive chemotherapy to make a tumor smaller before surgery or radiation therapy

Chemotherapy is also used after surgery or radiation to kill any cancer cells that remain. Chemotherapy can also be used in combination with radiation therapy to enhance its effects.

Chemotherapy works by attacking cells that grow and multiply quickly, like cancer cells. In this video, a chemotherapy agent attacks the cancer cells (blue) causing them to undergo a form of cell death called apoptosis.

How Do Children Receive Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy can be given in several ways. The method depends on the: 

  • Type of cancer
  • Location of the cancer
  • Specific drug used 

Most often, chemotherapy is given by mouth or through a vein. This is called systemic chemotherapy because the drugs travel throughout the entire body. The chemotherapy can kill cancer cells that have traveled away from the main tumor.

Ways chemotherapy is given include:

  • Intravenous (IV) chemotherapy – Chemotherapy is given through an IV in a vein. This is the most common form of chemotherapy in childhood cancer.
  • Oral chemotherapy – Chemotherapy is given by a pill or liquid that you swallow.
  • Injectable chemotherapy – Chemotherapy is injected quickly using a syringe.
  • Intrathecal chemotherapy – Chemotherapy drugs are injected into the fluid-filled space between the thin layers of tissue that cover the brain and spinal cord.
  • Intraperitoneal chemotherapy – Chemotherapy is directly into the abdominal cavity through a thin tube. The abdominal cavity is a large hollow space in the middle of the body between the chest and the pelvic area.
  • Topical chemotherapy – Chemotherapy is applied to the skin in a lotion or cream.

How Do I Prepare My Child for Chemotherapy?

Your child or teen may have questions about cancer and its treatment. It’s important to be honest with your child and use age-appropriate language.

Is Chemotherapy Safe?

Chemotherapy involves strong medicines. These medicines are designed to kill cancer cells. But chemotherapy may also harm normal cells in the body. 

Chemotherapy can cause side effects and late effects, which are symptoms and conditions that may occur years after treatment is over. But both side effects and late effects can be treated and managed.

Chemotherapy medicines can sometimes be absorbed through the skin or breathed in through the lungs. Family members can also be exposed to chemotherapy if the drugs come into contact with foods or everyday surfaces in the home. Learn more about safe handling of chemotherapy.

It is important to safely store and dispose of medicines. All medicines can be dangerous if not stored properly, if not taken as directed, if taken by the wrong person, or if not thrown away safely.

When is Chemotherapy Given?

Chemotherapy usually involves multiple doses of treatment over a period of time. These treatments are given on a specific schedule. The goal of the schedule is to maximize the work of the medicine and to give the body a chance to recover.

An illustration of a patient in a chair in a hospital room receiving chemotherapy.

The medical team will decide:

  • How many days in a row the medication is given
  • Number of “rest days” between doses of chemotherapy
  • Number of cycles

A chemotherapy cycle is the number of days in a row of treatment plus the number of rest days. The number of cycles that are prescribed make up a course of chemotherapy.

Depending on the type of chemotherapy and patient health, chemotherapy may be given in a hospital, clinic, or at home.

What Are the Side Effects of Chemotherapy?

Side effects are problems caused by cancer treatments. Many of the side effects of chemotherapy go away after the treatment is over. But, sometimes side effects don’t go away for a long time or even develop later in life. These are called long-term side effects or late effects.

Chemotherapy targets cells that grow and divide quickly – like cancer. But, it can harm other fast-growing cells in the body. These include the cells that line the mouth and intestines and cells that cause hair to grow. This is why side effects like mouth soresnausea, and hair loss are common.

Chemotherapy can also damage cells in the bone marrow where new blood cells are made. Low blood cell counts can increase risk for infectionbruising, and fatigue.

Medicines can have different side effects. Not all children respond to medicines in the same way. The care team will discuss common side effects, when they might occur, and some ways to manage them.

Learn more about kinds of side effects.

An illustration of a patient standing on the left, with three version of the patients face on the right. The top version is a closeup of the patient's mouth showing mouth sores. The middle version shows the patient with a green face indicating nausea. The bottom version show the patient with a bald head.

Chemotherapy targets cells that grow and divide quickly – like cancer. But, it can harm other fast-growing cells in the body. These include the cells that line the mouth and intestines and cells that cause hair to grow. This is why side effects like mouth sores, nausea, and hair loss are common.

Key Points

  • Chemotherapy, or “chemo,” is the treatment of cancer using powerful medicines.
  • Chemotherapy can be given in several ways. Most often, chemotherapy is given by mouth or through a vein.
  • Chemotherapy can cause side effects and late effects, which are symptoms and conditions that may occur years after treatment is over. But both side effects and late effects can be treated and managed.
  • Chemotherapy usually involves multiple doses of treatment over a period of time. These treatments are given on a specific schedule. The goal of the schedule is to maximize the work of the medicine and to give the body a chance to recover.
  • Medicines can have different side effects. Not all children respond to medicines in the same way. The care team will discuss common side effects, when they might occur, and some ways to manage them.


Reviewed: October 2021