What is it? Overview Usage Side Effects and Warnings

Chemotherapy Overview

Written by FoundHealth, sshowalter.


Chemotherapy is a treatment used to kill cancer cells. It involves taking medicines that are toxic to fast-growing cells like cancer cells.

Side Effects

Many types of chemotherapy drugs not only damage the cancer cells but can also damage some of your normal cells. This can create side effects. Side effects will vary between chemotherapy treatments. Your doctor will review a list of possible complications for your treatment type. Some side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Appetite loss
  • Hair loss
  • Low red blood cell count ( Anemia )
  • Weakened immune system and increased susceptibility to infection
  • Fatigue
  • Easy bruising and/or bleeding
  • Mouth sores
  • Persistent numbness and tingling sensation in the hands and/or feet, or weakness due to nerve damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Damage to the heart muscle
  • Infertility
  • Cessation of the menstrual period

You and your doctor will talk about options to help relieve some of these effects.

What to Expect

Prior to Procedure

You may be asked to take some pre-medicines such as:

  • Steroids
  • Allergy medicines (anti-histamines)
  • Anti-nausea medicines
  • Sedatives
  • Antibiotics

Description of the Procedure

Your doctor will talk to you about the best route for the medicine(s). Chemotherapy drugs may be given in several ways:

  • By mouth
  • By injection into a muscle or vein (IV)
  • By catheter tube into the bladder, abdomen, chest cavity, brain, spinal cord, or liver
  • By application to the skin

Chemotherapy Through Cardiovascular System
Chemotherapy Through Cardiovascular System
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

How Long Will It Take?

This depends on the route used, the number of medicines, and the amount of each medicine. A session may be as brief as the time it takes to swallow a pill. It could also take several hours or last overnight. Some types of chemotherapy can be given as a continuous infusion through a portable pump.

Will It Hurt?

The treatment may cause a number of uncomfortable side effects. The delivery of the chemotherapy usually does not hurt.

Average Hospital Stay

Most often, you can leave after the medicine is delivered. Some chemotherapy regimens will require a stay in the hospital. This may be about 2-3 days.

Your doctor may choose to keep you in the hospital if excessive complications arise. For example, if you have severe vomiting, you may need to be admitted to the hospital.

Post-procedure Care

At the Hospital

You may be given any of the following:

  • Medicines to take at home (eg, anti-nausea)
  • Injections of an immune-system boosting drug
  • Other drugs, including steroids, allergy medicines (anti-histamines), anti-nausea medicines, sedatives, and antibiotics

At Home

When you return home, do the following to help ensure a smooth recovery:

  • Get a lot of sleep.
  • Try to do some physical activity each day. Exercise can help to reduce fatigue.
  • Try to eat a healthy diet. Appetite changes can be a challenge.
  • Drink lots of fluids to avoid dehydration .
  • Use special mouth rinses to avoid or treat mouth sores.
  • Administer post-chemotherapy shots if they are prescribed by your doctor. These will help to keep your white blood count stable.
  • Try to avoid people with diseases that can be spread easily, including children. Chemotherapy will likely weaken your immune system. Viral illness (eg, cold or flu ) can have serious effects.
  • Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions .

Your doctor may order any of the following tests to check the progress of your treatment:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • X-ray —a test that uses radiation to take a picture of structures inside the body, especially bones
  • Ultrasound —a test that uses sound waves to find tumors
  • MRI scan —a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of the inside of the body
  • CT scan —a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of the inside of the body
  • Bone scans —a type of x-ray that shows areas of unusual activity
  • Bone marrow biopsies —the removal of a sample of bone marrow for examination



American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute


Cancer Care Ontario

Canadian Cancer Society


Abeloff MD. Clinical Oncology. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Churchill Livingstone; 2000.

Chemotherapy and you. National Institutes of Health website. Available at: . Updated June 2007. Accessed July 21, 2009.

Understanding chemotherapy. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: . Updated November 2008. Accessed July 21, 2009.

10/26/2009 DynaMed Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : Adamsen L, Quist M, Andersen C, et al. Effect of a multimodal high intensity exercise intervention in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy: randomised controlled trial. BMJ.2009;339:b3410.



No one has made any comments yet. Be the first!

Your Comment