Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer drugs to treat cancerous cells. Chemotherapy has been used for many years and is one of the most common treatments for cancer. In most cases, chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cell’s ability to grow or reproduce. Different groups of drugs work in different ways to fight cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used alone for some types of cancer or in combination with other treatments such as radiation or surgery. Often, a combination of chemotherapy drugs is used to fight a specific cancer. Certain chemotherapy drugs may be given in a specific order depending on the type of cancer it is being used to treat.
While chemotherapy can be quite effective in treating certain cancers, chemotherapy drugs reach all parts of the body, not just the cancer cells. Because of this range, there may be many side effects during treatment. Being able to anticipate these side effects can help you and your caregivers prepare, and in some cases prevent these symptoms from occurring.
Below is a video featuring Massey Clinical Pharmacy Specialist Morgan Culver, PharmD, BCOP, providing an overview of chemotherapy for cancer treatment, including potential side effects and helpful resources. Use the chapter links below the video to skip to the different sections.
Chemotherapy can be given:
- As a pill to swallow
- As an injection into the muscle or fat tissue
- Intravenously (directly to the bloodstream; also called IV)
- Topically (applied to the skin)
- Directly into a body cavity
There are more than 50 chemotherapy drugs that are commonly used. The following table gives examples of some chemotherapy drugs and their various names. It lists some of the cancer types but not necessarily all of the cancers for which they are used, and describes various side effects. Side effects may occur just after treatment (days or weeks) or they may occur later (months or years) after the chemotherapy has been given. The side effects listed below do not comprise an all-inclusive list. Other side effects are possible.
As each person’s individual medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his or her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team any/all possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins. You also may obtain more information about chemotherapy by visiting our patient resource libraries.
Possible side effects (not all side effects are listed - some side effects listed may be short-term; others may be long-term)