Chemotherapy is a type of drug treatment that uses chemicals to stop cell growth. These chemicals affect any cell in the body that grows rapidly. This includes tumour cells but also hair growth cells and bone marrow, among others.

Chemotherapy is usually administered through an IV directly into the bloodstream. It is usually given one to four times at 3-week intervals, depending on the stage of the disease.

Chemotherapy increases your risk of infection. This is because the chemotherapy lowers your white blood cell levels. If you have a temperature or other signs of infection, such as a cough, contact your treatment team immediately. If you have an infection, you may need antibiotics to treat it.

You might be unable to use chemotherapy. Limited ability to perform daily activities (low performance status), other illnesses, or decreased kidney function could make you ineligible. If you cannot take chemotherapy containing cisplatin, other combinations including carboplatin are an option with slightly decreased efficacy.

Your chemotherapy regimen should achieve a balance between the most effective cancer treatment and your quality of life. Some types of chemotherapy have a lot of side effects. Many are mild and can be managed at home. However, if you are not fit or feel very sick from the cancer, side effects can be quite severe. They should be considered seriously if you cannot recover from your illness and the goal is to optimize your quality of life.

Common side effects of chemotherapy:

  • Infection—contact your doctor if you have a fever, chills, or cough
  • Hair loss—will usually grow back in 3-6 months
  • Tiredness
  • Upset stomach (nausea)
  • Mouth sores
  • Sensory changes in taste or hearing
  • Changes in skin or nails
  • Tingling in fingers or toes
  • Lower levels of white blood cells
  • Anaemia
  • Hair loss
  • Fluid retention
  • Vomiting
  • Allergic reactions
  • Muscle pain
  • Diarrhoea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hearing loss
  • Kidney damage

Questions to ask your doctor about chemotherapy

  • Why do I need chemotherapy?
  • Are there other treatment options besides chemotherapy?
  • Which drugs will I have?
  • How do I take the drugs?
  • Will I have to stay in hospital?
  • What are the side effects?
  • Can I do anything to help prevent side effects?
  • Who can help me cope with side effects?
  • Who can I contact if I am worried about side effects?
  • What should I do if I get an infection?
  • How long will I have chemotherapy for?
  • How many courses of chemotherapy will I need?
  • How long will I need to be off work?
  • How can you tell if the chemotherapy is working?
  • How long will it take me to recover from the treatment?