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What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy, also called “chemo,” destroys, stops or slows the growth of cancer cells using anticancer drugs. While these powerful medications can be effective in killing cancer cells, they can also damage healthy cells in the process.

Whether done alone, or paired with other treatment options like radiation therapy and surgery, chemotherapy can play an essential role in your cancer treatment plan.


When and how is chemotherapy given during treatment?

Chemotherapy is typically administered in an outpatient location, like a hospital or doctor’s office. Treatment can be given:

  • In pill form
  • As an injection
  • Intravenously (into a vein)
  • Intrathecal (into the tissue that covers your brain and spinal cord)
  • Intra-arterial (into an artery)
  • Intraperitoneal (into the area where your intestines, stomach and liver are located)
  • Topically (onto the skin)
  • Directly into the area where the cancer is located


Treatment sessions can last for hours at a time, so patients are encouraged to bring books, music or movies—anything that will provide comfort and help pass the time. It is also important to have a friend or family member available to take you to and from each appointment, since it is difficult to gauge how you will feel after treatment.

Chemotherapy treatment schedules are tailored to each patient. They can occur daily, weekly, every few weeks or monthly, depending on the cancer type and stage. Each treatment is followed by a rest period, giving the body time to recover and re-build healthy cells.

The side effects of chemotherapy vary from person to person, but some common ones include:

  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Pain
  • Changes in appetite

By working closely with your doctor and caregiver, it is possible to successfully prepare for and manage any side effects you might experience.

Visit Understanding Your Chemotherapy Treatment for more information.