Chemotherapy is medication(s) used to kill cancer cells. The medications are toxic to fast-growing cells like cancer cells.

Reasons for Procedure    TOP

Chemotherapy may be the main treatment or part of a treatment plan. It can be used to:

  • Cure certain cancers
  • Decrease the chance of cancer returning after it has been removed through surgery
  • Stop the growth of cancers that can not be removed
  • Reduce the size of tumors before surgery
  • Attack cancer that has spread to other parts of the body
  • Shrink tumors that are causing problems

Side Effects    TOP

Chemotherapy drugs attack fast-growing cells. Chemotherapy can damage these healthy cells which leads to side effects. The exact types of side effects will vary. They will depend on the type of chemotherapy treatment and which healthy cells are affected.

Cells that line the mouth, stomach, and intestines are fast-growing cells. Chemotherapy can damage these cells and cause:

Damage to blood cells can lead to:

  • Anemia—low red blood cell count
  • Weakened immune system with an increased risk of infections
  • Fatigue
  • Easy bruising and/or bleeding

Cells at the root of hairs are also fast growing. Damage to these cells causes hair loss.

Other areas that may be affected include:

  • Nerves—damage or irritation to the nerves may cause peripheral neuropathy, numbness and tingling sensation in the hands and/or feet
  • Kidney—chemotherapy drugs eventually pass through the kidneys can damage to the kidneys
  • Heart—certain chemotherapy drugs can cause damage to the heart muscle
  • Reproductive organ changes may cause:

The medical team will work to find a chemotherapy plan that is most effective against the cancer with the fewest amount of side effects. Other treatments may also help better manage side effects.

What to Expect    TOP

Prior to Procedure

Some medication may be needed before treatment such as:

  • Steroids—to decrease inflammation
  • Allergy medications, such as an antihistamine
  • Antiemetics to control nausea
  • Sedatives
  • Antibiotics—to decrease the risk of infections

Description of the Procedure

The medical team will talk to you about the best way to deliver the treatment. Chemotherapy drugs may be given by:

  • IV—needle is inserted into a vein in the arm and medication is slowly passed into the blood
  • Mouth—pills or liquids
  • Injection which may be:
    • Passed directly into a muscle
    • Placed just under the skin into fatty tissue
    • Intrathecal—injection into tissue that covers the spine and brain
    • Intra-arterial—injected into artery that leads right to cancer
    • Intraperitoneal—injected into area over abdomen
  • Topical—placed directly on the skin

Chemotherapy Delivery Through the Cardiovascular System

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

How Long Will It Take?    TOP

The length of treatment will depend on the type of treatment, the number of medications, and the amount needed. A session may be taking a pill or an infusion over several hours. Some types of chemotherapy may be continuously given through a pump.

Will It Hurt?    TOP

The delivery of the chemotherapy will usually not cause pain. Side effects may start in the hours and days after treatment.

Average Hospital Stay    TOP

Most often, you can leave after the medication is delivered. Some chemotherapy treatments will require a stay in the hospital. This may be about 2-3 days.

A hospital stay may be needed if there are certain complications, such as severe vomiting.

Post-procedure Care    TOP

At the Hospital

Treatment after chemotherapy may include:

  • Injections of an immune-system or blood cell boosting drug
  • Other drugs, including steroids, allergy medications, sedatives, and antibiotics

At Home

Recovery time at home will depend on the type of treatment and your reaction to it. Some will need longer periods of rest than other and have greater impact on daily tasks.

Follow up tests will be needed to make sure the treatment is working as expected. The tests will also help plan future treatments.

Call Your Doctor    TOP

Contact your doctor if you are having difficulty managing chemotherapy or you develop complications such as:

  • Signs of infection, including fever and chills
  • Sores in your mouth, throat, or lips
  • White patches in your mouth
  • Difficulty/pain with swallowing
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Vomiting that prevents you from holding down fluids
  • Blood in your vomit
  • Easy bruising
  • Nosebleeds, bleeding gums, new vaginal bleeding
  • Blood in your urine or stool
  • Burning or frequency of urination
  • Chest pain
  • Severe weakness
  • Shortness of breath, trouble breathing, or cough
  • Calf pain, swelling, or redness in the legs or feet
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge, itching, or odor
  • New pain or pain that you cannot control with the medications you were given
  • Numbness, tingling, or pain in your extremities
  • Joint pain, stiffness, rash, or other new symptoms
  • Redness, swelling, increasing pain, excessive bleeding, or a pimple at the site of your IV
  • Headache, stiff neck
  • Hearing or vision changes
  • Ringing in your ears
  • Exposure to someone with an infectious illness, including chickenpox
  • Weight gain or loss of 10 pounds or more

If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.


American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute


Canadian Cancer Society


Chemotherapy. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed October 9, 2017.
Chemotherapy and you: Support for people with cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Updated June 2011. Accessed October 9, 2017.
Last reviewed September 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP
Last Updated: 9/11/2014

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