Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to destroy cancer cells. It is also called "chemo."

Today, there are many different kinds of chemotherapy. So the way you feel during treatment may be very different from someone else.

Chemotherapy can be used to:

  • Destroy cancer cells
  • Stop cancer cells from spreading
  • Slow the growth of cancer cells

Most patients receive chemotherapy by mouth or through a vein. Either way, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can affect cancer cells all over the body. Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles. People receive treatment for one or more days. Then they have a recovery period of several days or weeks before the next treatment session.

Most people have their treatment in an outpatient part of the hospital, at the doctor's office, or at home. Some people may need to stay in the hospital during chemotherapy. Side effects depend mainly on the specific drugs and the dose. The drugs affect cancer cells and other cells that divide rapidly:

  • Blood cells: When drugs damage healthy blood cells, you are more likely to get infections, to bruise or bleed easily, and to feel very weak and tired.

  • Cells in hair roots: Chemotherapy can cause hair loss. Your hair will grow back, but it may be somewhat different in color and texture.

  • Cells that line the digestive tract: Chemotherapy can cause poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth and lip sores.

Some drugs can affect fertility. Women may be unable to become pregnant, and men may not be able to father a child. Although the side effects of chemotherapy can be distressing, most of them are temporary. Your doctor can usually treat or control them.

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Adapted from the National Cancer Institute's PDQ Database: (Accessed August 2013)