There are different kinds of steroids. The full name for the type used to treat cancer and side effects is corticosteroids.

Steroids occur naturally in the body, and have a number of important functions. Extra steroids can be given as part of your cancer treatment for a number of reasons.

When are steroids used?

You might have steroids to:

  • Reduce swelling around the cancer – this is particularly useful for people with brain tumours
  • Treat the cancer itself, often alongside chemotherapy treatment
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Reduce your immune system’s response to a transplant
  • Help relieve sickness when having chemotherapy
  • Help increase your appetite.

Most people who take steroids as part of their cancer treatment only need them for a few days or weeks.

If your disease or treatment stops your own steroid production, you may also be given replacement steroids to stop you feeling unwell. In this situation, low doses are used and you should not get any of the side effects described below.

How are steroids taken?

There are a number of different ways to take steroids, including:

  • as a tablet that you swallow
  • as a syrup or tablet that dissolves
  • as an injection into a vein or muscle (usually your leg or buttock muscle) or into the fat under the skin.

If you’re taking steroids for a while, you will get a steroid card to carry in your pocket, purse or wallet. This is important information if you need any kind of medical treatment.

At the end of a long course or high dose of steroids, your doctor will gradually reduce your dose rather than stopping them suddenly, as you would be very unwell if the steroids were suddenly stopped. This is because the medication affects your natural production of steroids and your body needs time to readjust.

For information about the side effects of taking steroids, see our side effects section.

Updated December 2014, next planned review 2017.