What is chemotherapy?

How does chemotherapy work?

Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. Cancer includes leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. Cytotoxic means toxic to cells.

Cytotoxic chemotherapy drugs disrupt the way cancer cells grow and divide but they also affect normal cells. These healthy cells can usually repair damage caused by chemotherapy but cancer cells can’t and eventually die.

Sometimes chemotherapy is used alone to treat some types of cancer. But often it’s used with other treatments such as surgery, radiotherapy, hormonal therapy, or other anti-cancer drugs such as targeted or biological therapies.

Chemotherapy drugs

Not all cancers are treated with the same chemotherapy drugs or in the same way. There are many different chemotherapy drugs and new drugs are being developed all the time.

Research that’s already been done will help your cancer specialist decide the most effective drugs to treat the type of cancer you have. You may have one drug or a combination of different drugs.

To many people the word "chemo" is almost as scary as cancer, but it is just medicine.


Other anti-cancer drugs

Other anti-cancer drugs are used to treat cancer but they’re not usually known as chemotherapy. For example, newer drugs called targeted (biological) therapies are directed at certain parts of the cancer cells and work differently to chemotherapy. These drugs can be given on their own or in combination with chemotherapy drugs.

Back to Chemotherapy explained

When is chemotherapy used?

Chemotherapy is used to kill cancer cells in the body. Your doctor will explain if chemotherapy is advised for you.

How do chemotherapy drugs work?

Chemotherapy drugs work by stopping cancer cells reproducing. The drugs can also affect healthy cells, causing side effects.