What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy (chemo) is a treatment that uses anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells, including leukaemia and lymphoma cells. You may have one chemotherapy drug, or you may have more than one. When you are treated with two or more chemotherapy drugs, doctors call it combination chemotherapy.

We have more information about:

The type of chemotherapy you will have depends on:

  • the type of cancer you have
  • the risk of the cancer coming back
  • whether the cancer has spread.

Doctors often use chemotherapy with surgery and radiotherapy.

It can also be used with targeted therapies and hormonal therapies. We have information about targeted therapies and hormonal therapies that is written for people of all ages, not just teenagers and young adults.

Doctors use chemotherapy in different ways:

  • As the main treatment for cancers such as lymphoma and leukaemia.
  • Before surgery or radiotherapy, to shrink a cancer and make it easier to treat.
  • After surgery or radiotherapy, to reduce the risk of a cancer coming back.
  • At the same time as radiotherapy, to make that treatment work better. This is called chemoradiation.
  • To try to control the cancer and reduce any symptoms.

How does it work?

Chemotherapy works by killing cancer cells when they are dividing and growing. Most chemotherapy drugs travel through the blood. This means that they can reach cancer cells anywhere in the body. Different chemotherapy drugs work in different ways. Doctors often use a combination of chemotherapy drugs.

Chemotherapy also affects healthy cells when they are dividing and growing. This is what causes side effects. These side effects usually go away when treatment ends, but sometimes side effects can happen after treatment.