Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to destroy cancer cells.
There are over 50 different chemotherapy drugs. Some are given on their own but often several drugs are given together. Information on the drugs I most commonly prescribe is contained on this website. Click on the chemotherapy tab on the left to select the individual drugs.
The type of chemotherapy treatment you are given depends on many things, but particularly:
- where the cancer started in your body
- what the cancer cells look like under the microscope
- whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body.
Chemotherapy may be used alone to treat some cancers. It may also be used with other types of treatment such as surgery or radiotherapy.
Healthy cells in certain parts of the body are especially sensitive to chemotherapy drugs; these parts of the body include:
- the bone marrow (which makes blood cells)
- the hair follicles
- the lining of the mouth
- the digestive system.
Chemotherapy is usually given as a series of sessions of treatment. Each session is followed by a rest period. The session of chemotherapy and the rest period is known as a cycle of treatment. A series of cycles makes up a course of treatment.
Each session of chemotherapy destroys more of the cancer cells, and the rest period allows the normal cells and tissues to recover.
When chemotherapy is used
Before an operation
Chemotherapy can be used before an operation (this is known as neo-adjuvant or primary chemotherapy) to shrink a cancer that is too large – or too attached to surrounding healthy tissue – to be removed easily during an operation. This can make removing the cancer easier during a later operation.
After an operation
Chemotherapy can be given after an operation (this is known as adjuvant chemotherapy) when all the visible cancer has been removed but there is a risk that some cancer cells, which are too small to be seen, may have been left behind. The aim is to destroy these cancer cells.
Chemotherapy may also be given if a cancer cannot be completely removed during an operation. In this situation chemotherapy may not be able to cure the cancer but may shrink it and so reduce symptoms.
Sometimes chemotherapy is given at the same time as radiotherapy to increase the effectiveness of the radiation. This is known as chemoradiotherapy.
In advanced cancer
Where cancer has spread into surrounding tissue or other parts of the body (metastatic), chemotherapy can sometimes be given with the aim of getting rid of all the cancer and curing it. More commonly however, chemotherapy is given to people in this situation to shrink and control the cancer, to try to extend life and control any symptoms that may occur.