When is chemotherapy used?

When chemotherapy is used

Having chemotherapy depends on different factors. These include the type of cancer, the risk of it coming back, if it has spread and your general health.

Chemotherapy can be used:

  • as a main treatment for cancers, such as lymphomas and leukaemias
  • in high doses as part of a stem cell or bone marrow transplant
  • before surgery or radiotherapy to shrink a cancer (called neo-adjuvant chemotherapy)
  • after surgery or radiotherapy to reduce the risk of cancer coming back by treating any remaining cells (called adjuvant chemotherapy)
  • at the same time as radiotherapy to make it work better (called chemoradiation)
  • to treat cancer that has spread into surrounding areas (locally advanced) or to other parts of the body (advanced). This may cure certain cancers but, more commonly, the aim is to shrink and control a cancer to try to prolong life, and to relieve symptoms. Chemotherapy to relieve symptoms is called palliative chemotherapy.

Your cancer doctor or chemotherapy specialist nurse will explain why chemotherapy is being advised for you. You can read more about this in our section about planning your chemotherapy treatment.

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How do chemotherapy drugs work?

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