Together is a new resource for anyone affected by pediatric cancer - patients and their parents, family members, and friends.Learn More
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:
Chemotherapy can be used to:
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.
Chemotherapy can be given in several ways. The method depends on the:
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:
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.
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.
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.
The medical team will decide:
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.
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 sores, nausea, and hair loss are common.
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