Chemotherapy - What happens - Chemotherapy - Overview

Chemotherapy can be carried out in many different ways, depending on your circumstances.

Before chemotherapy treatment starts

Deciding to have treatment

If you're diagnosed with cancer, you'll be cared for by a team of specialists. Your team will recommend chemotherapy if they think it's the best option for you. But the final decision is yours.

Making this decision can be difficult. You may find it useful to write a list of questions to ask your care team.

You may want to find out what the aim of treatment is.

For example, is it to:

  • try and cure your cancer
  • relieve your symptoms
  • make other treatments more effective

You may also want to know:

  • about possible side effects and what can be done to prevent or relieve them
  • how effective chemotherapy is likely to be
  • whether any other treatments could be tried instead

If you agree with your team's recommendation, they'll start to plan your treatment. You will have to give your consent to treatment.

Tests and checks

Before chemotherapy begins, you'll have tests to check your general health. This is to make sure the treatment is suitable for you.

The tests you'll have may include:

  • blood tests - to check how well your liver and kidneys are working, and how many blood cells you have
  • X-rays and scans - to check the size of your cancer
  • measurements of your height and weight - to help your team work out the correct dose

During treatment you'll also have tests to check your progress.

Your treatment plan

Chemotherapy involves several treatment sessions. These are usually spread over the course of a few months.

Before treatment starts, your care team will draw up a plan that outlines:

  • the type of chemotherapy you'll have
  • how many treatment sessions you'll need
  • how often you'll need treatment

After each treatment you'll have a break before the next session to allow your body to recover.

Your treatment plan will depend on the type of cancer you have and what the aim of treatment is.

A care team is a team of healthcare professionals who will care for you during your treatment.

How chemotherapy is given

Into a vein (intravenous chemotherapy)

In most cases, you will receive chemotherapy into a vein. This is known as intravenous chemotherapy.

This usually involves slowly getting medicine from a bag of fluid. This is attached with a tube to one of your veins.

This can be done in different ways.

Cannula

This is a small tube that's placed into a vein in the back of your hand or lower arm for a short time.

Peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line

This is a small tube put into a vein in your arm that usually stays in place for several weeks or months.

Central line

This is like a PICC, but the tube is put into your chest and connected to one of the veins near your heart.

Implanted port

This is a small device put under the skin. It's kept in place until your treatment course finishes. You receive the chemotherapy medicine through a needle inserted into the device through your skin.

The time it takes to have a dose can range from several hours to several days.

You usually come into hospital for the treatment and go home when it's finished.

Tablets (oral chemotherapy)

Sometimes chemotherapy is given in tablets. This is known as oral chemotherapy.

At the start of each treatment session you will get the tablets and have a check-up in hospital. But you can take the medicine at home.

Make sure you follow the instructions given by your care team. Taking too much or too little medicine may effect how well the medicine works and could be dangerous.

Contact your care team if you have any problems with your medicine.

Other types of chemotherapy

Chemotherapy may be given as:

  • injections under the skin - known as subcutaneous chemotherapy
  • injections into a muscle - known as intramuscular chemotherapy
  • injections into the spine - known as intrathecal chemotherapy
  • a skin cream

Issues during treatment

During chemotherapy treatment, there are a number of important things to bear in mind.

Pregnancy and contraception

Women should avoid becoming pregnant while having chemotherapy. This is because a lot of chemotherapy medicines can cause birth defects.

Use a barrier method of contraception, such as a condom. Contact your care team immediately if you think you may have become pregnant.

Men having chemotherapy should use condoms throughout their course of treatment. Condoms should still be used even if their partner is taking contraception.

Taking other medicines

Check with your care team before you take any other medicines. This includes medicine you buy from a pharmacy and herbal remedies.

Other medicines could react with your chemotherapy medication. This may affect how well it works and could cause dangerous side effects.

Side effects

Chemotherapy can cause a range of unpleasant side effects.

Read more about the side effects of chemotherapy

Deciding to stop treatment

The benefits of chemotherapy may not seem like they are worth the poor quality of life, due to the side effects. If you're struggling and are having doubts about if you should continue, speak to your care team.

Your team can give you advice about the benefits of continuing with treatment. But the final decision to continue or stop is yours.

Page last reviewed: 15 September 2021
Next review due: 15 September 2024