Chemotherapy drugs interfere with the process of cell division. They affect normal cells as well as cancer cells. As a result, they often cause side effects.
The drugs are often given as a liquid through a drip into a vein (intravenously). They circulate in the bloodstream and reach the cancer cells wherever they are in the body. Some chemotherapy drugs are taken as tablets or capsules, which can be taken at home.
Intravenous chemotherapy may take minutes, hours or a few days. The treatment is followed by a few weeks of rest to allow the body to recover from any side effects. Together, the treatment and the rest period are known as a cycle of chemotherapy. Sometimes a drug is given continuously into the vein by a small portable pump over a set period of time.
Your cancer doctor will explain the number of cycles you need to treat the cancer. A complete course of treatment may take several months.
Chemotherapy affects people in different ways, but there’s usually a pattern of side effects after each cycle of treatment. After your first cycle, you’ll have a better idea of how much you’re able to do.
Some people find that they can’t work at all. Others are able to keep working, or they find that they just need to take a few days off after each cycle of treatment. They can then work until the next treatment is due.
Side effects of chemotherapy
Different chemotherapy drugs have different side effects.
Side effects can include hair loss, a sore mouth, tiredness, feeling sick or being sick, and diarrhoea. A significant side effect of many chemotherapy drugs is that they can temporarily stop the bone marrow making new blood cells. This means your immunity is reduced and you’re more likely to get infections. You may also become anaemic (when the number of red blood cells in your blood is low), or have bleeding problems, such as nosebleeds or bruising easily.
If your bone marrow isn’t working properly, you may need to take antibiotics to treat infection, or have a blood transfusion if you’re anaemic. You’ll have regular blood tests between courses of treatment to monitor the effects.