Chemotherapy (sometimes known as chemo) is a medication used to treat people with cancer. You may have this if you come to Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) as a patient. 

There are about 50 different chemotherapy medicines that are used to destroy cancer cells. 

You may be given only one drug or perhaps a few together (this is called combination chemo). How many drugs you need and which ones you are given all depends on the type of cancer that you have, where the cancer started and at what stage it is. You may also need radiotherapy (radiation treatment) and/or surgery to help to get rid of the cancer.

How it works

You may be able to swallow your chemo. It may come in the form of a capsule, a tablet or a solution. 

However, sometimes it needs to be given straight into a vein, if this is the case you will probably get a special line called a central line just for your chemo. Whichever way you take it, it will make its way into your blood. The drugs will pass round your body carried by your blood. The drugs will damage any cancer cells that they come across and this will prevent the cancer cells from dividing and growing.

Unfortunately, the drugs can also damage some normal cells in your body and this can lead to some side effects

How long the treatment will take all depends on how well the cancer responds to the chemo. Usually you will be treated with chemo cycles lasting a few days, in between chemo cycles you may be able to go home. The chemo cycles usually last several months. 

Your doctor will want to carry out tests regularly to see how well the drugs are working for you. It may take many months to complete your treatment, this all depends on the type of cancer that you have and how the cancer is responding to the drugs.

Your doctor may be able to give you a better idea of how long he/she expects it will take altogether.

Side effects

It's hard to say what side effects you will get when being treated with chemotherapy. There are many drugs that are given in different amounts and in different combinations and they will all affect different people in different ways.

But the good news is that almost all of these side effects are temporary. Some will go away days after the treatment, others will slowly disappear after you have completed your treatment.

Unfortunately, for some types of cancers, particular side-effects may stay even after the treatment has finished. In some cases they may only show themselves later on. Talk to your doctor about the treatment and how it may or may not affect you when you are older.

Chemo drugs may damage the cells in your body that divide and grow quickly (just like cancer cells) and this is what causes most of the temporary side effects. Cells like these are found in:

  • the lining of your mouth
  • your digestive system
  • your bone marrow
  • your hair
  • your skin
It may be hard for you to tell whether what you are feeling is due to the cancer, the treatment or an infection you have picked up, so make sure you tell your doctor about everything you can. If you talk to your doctor he/she may be able to help, or at least he/she can try to explain what is what.

Last reviewed: December 2011

Compiled by:
Great Ormond Street Hospital