'Chemo' isn’t just one drug. It’s the name for lots of different medicines used to kill cancer cells. The chemo travels in your blood stream to hunt down the cancer cells, wherever they are in your body. Cancer cells grow quickly and these 'cytotoxic drugs' are great at targeting them. 

When is chemotherapy used?

Chemotherapy can be used:

  • as a main treatment for cancer
  • to shrink a tumour before surgery or radiotherapy (neoadjuvant therapy)
  • to reduce the risk of cancer coming back after surgery or radiotherapy (adjuvant therapy).

Some cancers, like leukaemia, need chemotherapy because the cancer cells are in the blood and therefore all over the body. Other times when a solid tumour is removed with surgery, chemotherapy will also be given to target any cancer cells that might be left.

Chemo and contraception

If you are on the pill or use an implant, either for contraception or to control periods, discuss this with your care team as some methods of contraception may be less effective. It’s important not to become pregnant, or make someone pregnant, if you are having chemotherapy as it can affect an unborn baby.

If you think you’re already pregnant, tell your doctor. They'll need to know so they can protect you and your baby. You can always ask to speak to them privately if you need. Just make sure you tell them.

How is chemotherapy given?

There are loads of different chemotherapy drugs. You might need just one drug or a mix of different ones. Your specialist will base this on your cancer type and how advanced it is - and choose the best ones for you.

It's common to have chemo intravenously, which means given directly into a vein. Intravenous chemotherapy always involves inserting a thin tube (or ‘line’) into your vein, but this can be done in different ways.

  • A cannula is put into your hand or arm. These are usually put in specifically for each treatment and taken out immediately afterwards.
  • A PICC line is a thin, flexible tube which is inserted into a vein in your arm. It's slid along until it reaches a large vein in your chest and will stay in place until your treatment is over
  • A central line is a tube placed into a vein in your chest, usually the one that lies just under your collarbone. There are different types of central line. With a Hickman or Broviac line, the end of the tube is on the outside of your chest and is sealed with a cap. A portacath is located under your skin and accessed with a needle when it’s needed. The central line is put in place while you are under anaesthetic and can stay in place for weeks or months.

It can also be given as a tablet or liquid to take by mouth, or injected. You might have to have a combination of these methods, or just one. 

For some types of chemo, You can go to the clinic, have your treatment and then go home. Others will mean a stay in hospital. And some can be given at home.

How long will I have it for?

Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles. You’ll have several days or weeks of treatment, then a rest period, then more treatment. The number of these cycles will depend on things like the type of cancer you have and how well it’s responding to treatment. Some people need just one cycle, while others will have many.

Read about the side effects of chemotherapy.

Updated March 2018, next review due 2021.