Cancer drug treatments

Cancer drug treatments can be given in different ways depending on the drug, the type of cancer and your treatment plan.

What are cancer drug treatments?

Cancer drug treatments include:

Cancer drug treatments are mostly given as an injection, as a drip (infusion), or by mouth as tablets or capsules. Cancer treatments given this way get into the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells in other parts of the body. This is called systemic anti-cancer therapy (SACT).

Other cancer treatments such as surgery and radiotherapy only treat the part of the body that has cancer.

Cancer drug treatments can also be given in other ways, such as:

Cancer drug treatments can be given:

  • on their own
  • before or after surgery
  • with radiotherapy.

Some people may have a combination of different types of SACT – for example, chemotherapy and targeted therapy.

Planning your treatment

Your cancer drug treatment is planned carefully by your cancer team. This includes experts in treating people using cancer treatments and drugs.

They will tell you:

  • the aims of the treatment
  • how it is given
  • how often you have treatment
  • how long your course of treatment will take
  • about any possible side effects.

Cancer drug treatments are usually given in a day unit or outpatient clinic. But depending on the type of treatment, some people may stay in hospital or have it at home.

We have more information about having cancer drug treatments.

Tests and scans

Your cancer team will talk to you about any tests, scans or check-ups you need before treatment begins.

For some drugs, you may need to have your blood pressure checked regularly. You may have this done by your cancer team, practice nurse or at home. Your cancer team can explain what usually happens in your area.

  • Scans and x-rays

    Some cancer drugs can affect organs, such as the heart or the kidneys. You may need tests to measure how well these organs are working before you have treatment.

    Some people may need further scans or x-rays to learn more about the extent of the cancer (its stage) before treatment. We have more information about tests and scans.

  • Blood tests

    For some SACT, you may need to have regular blood tests. This can be done:

    • at the hospital where you are having treatment
    • by a practice nurse or someone who is trained to take blood samples (phlebotomist) at your GP surgery
    • at a hospital closer to your home.

    The results will be ready for you when you go to have your treatment.

  • Height and weight
    For most types of treatment, your height and weight will be checked. Your cancer team uses this information to work out the right dose of the drugs for you.
  • Pregnancy test
    You may have a pregnancy test before starting treatment. This is because some cancer drugs may harm a developing baby.

Preparing for cancer treatment

Before you start cancer treatment, there are practical things you might want to organise. For example, you might be worried about work or money. We have more information about preparing for treatment.

Having information about the treatment and its side effects can help you get organised and feel more in control. There are things you can do to help you feel prepared.

  • Work or studies

    Before starting treatment, it is a good idea to think about your work or study commitments, such as college or university. Talk to your cancer team about how much time off you might need so you can make arrangements during treatment.

  • Help at home

    Some treatments can make you tired, so you may need help with everyday tasks. Although you may find it hard to ask, family and friends often want to help. If you live alone or are caring for someone else, you can ask to talk to the hospital social worker about getting help.

  • Help with children

    If you have children, you may need help with taking them to and collecting them from school or clubs. Family and friends usually want to help, so accept their offers to help or ask for any support you need. It is also useful to know who you can contact at short notice to look after your children. We have more information about childcare when you have cancer.

  • Your fertility

    Some cancer drugs affect fertility – this is the ability to get pregnant or make someone pregnant. If this is a concern for you, it is very important to talk to your cancer doctor before treatment starts. Sometimes your fertility can be preserved by storing sperm or eggs before treatment begins.

  • Contraception

    It is important not to get pregnant or make someone pregnant while having cancer drug treatment and for some time afterwards. The drugs may harm a developing baby. It is important to use contraception to prevent pregnancy. Talk to your cancer team or GP about:

    • what types of contraception to use
    • how long after treatment you should continue to use contraception.

  • If you are pregnant

    If you are pregnant and have been diagnosed with cancer, you may still be able to have some SACT drugs. But this depends on:

    • the stage of the cancer
    • how far along you were in your pregnancy when the cancer was diagnosed.

    We have more information on being diagnosed with cancer when you are pregnant.

  • Getting a wig

    Some SACT, such as some chemotherapy drugs, can cause hair loss or hair thinning. You might decide to have a wig fitted. You can have the wig fitted before you start treatment. We have more information about wigs for cancer treatment.

  • Medical and dental treatment

    If you need medical treatment for any reason other than cancer, always tell the healthcare professional that you are having cancer treatment. Give them the contact details for your cancer doctor or cancer team so they can ask for advice.

    If you have appointments with a dentist, always tell them you are having cancer treatment. Talk to your cancer team before you have any dental treatment.

  • Taking other drugs, vitamins or supplements

    Always tell your cancer doctor, nurse or pharmacist about any prescription and other drugs, vitamins, herbal remedies or supplements you are taking or plan to take. Some drugs may interact with SACT or make treatment less effective.

  • Vaccinations

    Doctors usually recommend that people with cancer have vaccinations for flu and for coronavirus (covid). These help reduce your risk of serious illness from these infections. Most people can have these vaccines, including people with weak immune systems.

    If your immune system is weak, you should not have live vaccinations. This is because they can make you unwell. Live vaccines, such as the yellow fever vaccine, contain a very weak version of the illness they will protect you against. It is important to ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist for advice about having vaccinations. They can explain what vaccines are right for you and when it is best to have them.

Your follow-up after treatment ends

After your treatment has finished, you will have regular check-ups and possibly scans or x-rays. This will depend on:

  • the type of cancer
  • the treatments you have had.

Many people find they get very anxious before their appointments. This is natural. It may help to get support from family or friends. You can also talk to our cancer support specialists free on 0808 808 00 00. Or you can visit our Online Community to connect with people who have had the same SACT.

Follow-up appointments are a good opportunity to discuss any problems or worries you have. It may help to make a list of questions before you go so you do not forget anything important.

If you have any problems, or notice any new symptoms in between your appointments, let your GP, specialist nurse or cancer doctor know as soon as possible. Do not wait until your next scheduled appointment – you can ask for an earlier one.

You may have your follow-up appointments at a nurse-led clinic and only see your cancer doctor if something needs to be checked further. Instead of routine appointments, you may be asked to contact your nurse or cancer doctor if there is anything you are worried about.

Getting support

Macmillan is here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:

Beginning to recover after SACT treatment

You may have mixed emotions when you get to the end of your cancer treatment. You will probably feel relieved, but you may also feel anxious and uncertain.

You might feel ready to get on with your life after treatment. But sometimes, you may feel less positive.

It is important to accept that it will take you time to recover and that you may feel tired for a while. You may also have new challenges to cope with, such as physical effects caused by the cancer or its treatment. It usually takes time to adjust to these and understand what is now normal for you. Complementary therapies might help you feel better and reduce some stress and anxiety.

When your treatment is over, you may want to think about making some positive changes to your lifestyle. Many people find that they settle back into their usual routines over time. But it is important to remember that support is available to help you with any physical or emotional problems you may have.

Booklets and resources

About our information

This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer.

Rajinder Nijjar


Lead Cancer Pharmacist

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 May 2024
Next review: 01 May 2026
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

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