Chemotherapy is the name given to medicine which is used to kill cancer cells. They are carried through the bloodstream and can reach the cancer cells wherever they are in the body. They work by disrupting the growth of these cells.

There are more than 50 chemotherapy drugs, and the choice depends on the type of cancer your child has and how advanced it is. Your child may need several different drugs to treat their cancer. Once your specialist has decided on the treatment plan, they will let you know what drugs your child will need and their particular side effects.

When is chemotherapy used as a treatment?

For some cancer types, chemotherapy on its own is the main treatment. 

Chemotherapy is also used to:

  • Shrink the tumour before surgery or radiotherapy (known as neoadjuvant therapy)
  • Reduce the risk of the cancer coming back after surgery or radiotherapy (adjuvant therapy)

Some cancers, such as leukaemia, need chemotherapy because the cancer cells are in the blood and therefore all over the body. In other cases, when a solid tumour is removed with surgery, specialists may also prescribe chemotherapy to target any cancer cells that might remain in the body.

How is chemotherapy given?

Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles. This means your child will have several days or weeks of treatment, then a rest period, then more treatment. The number of chemotherapy cycles your child will need will depend on their individual circumstances, such as the type of cancer they have, and how well it is responding to treatment. Some people just have one cycle, while other people can have many.

The chemotherapy may be given to your child in one of three ways.

  • Intravenously: where the drug is diluted in fluid and given straight into the vein, via a drip
  • By mouth: in the form of a liquid or a tablet
  • By injection: into the muscle or under the skin.

An intravenous injection could be given in two ways:

  • Through a PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter). This is inserted into one of the veins of your child's arms, then slid into the vein until the tip sits in a large vein just above the heart.
  • Using a central line, which is a tube placed into a vein in your child's chest. There are a number of different types of central line. With a Hickman line or Broviac line, the end of the tube is on the outside of the chest and is sealed with a cap. A portacath is slightly different in that it’s located under the skin and accessed with a needle when it is needed. The central line or portacath is put in place while your child is under anaesthetic and can stay in place for weeks or months if necessary.

The drugs used for chemotherapy are very powerful and can affect the normal cells within your child's body as well as the cancer cells. This can cause side effects. For more information about these, see our side effects section. 

Where next?

Updated November 2017, next review due 2019.