Find out about what having chemotherapy involves, including the main ways that it's given.

Chemotherapy can be carried out in many different ways, depending on your circumstances.

This page covers:

What happens before treatment starts

How chemotherapy is given

Issues during treatment

Before treatment starts

Making the decision

If you're diagnosed with cancer, you'll be cared for by a team of specialists. Your team will recommend chemotherapy if they think it's the best option for you, but the final decision is yours.

Making this decision can be difficult. You may find it useful to write a list of questions to ask your care team before discussing your options.

For example, you may want to find out:

  • what the aim of treatment is  for example, whether it's being used to cure your cancer, relieve your symptoms or make other treatments more effective
  • what side effects you're likely to experience and whether anything can be done to prevent or relieve them
  • how effective chemotherapy is likely to be
  • whether any others treatments could be tried instead

If you agree with your team's recommendation, they'll start to plan your treatment once you've given your consent to treatment.

Tests and checks

Before chemotherapy begins, you'll have tests to check your general health and make sure the treatment is suitable for you.

The tests you'll have may include:

  • blood tests – to check things such as how well your liver and kidneys are working, and how many blood cells you have
  • X-rays and scans – to check the size of your cancer
  • measurements of your height and weight – to help your team work out the correct chemotherapy dose for you

Tests will also be carried out during treatment to monitor your progress.

Your treatment plan

Chemotherapy involves several treatment sessions, typically spread over the course of a few months.

Before treatment starts, your care team will draw up a plan that outlines:

  • the type of chemotherapy you'll have
  • how many treatment sessions you'll need
  • how often you'll need treatment – after each treatment you'll have a break before the next session to allow your body to recover

Your treatment plan will depend on things such as the type of cancer you have and what the aim of treatment is.

Want to know more?

How chemotherapy is given

Directly into a vein (intravenous chemotherapy)

In most cases, chemotherapy is given directly into a vein. This is known as intravenous chemotherapy.

This usually involves medicine being given slowly from a bag of fluid that's attached with a tube to one of your veins.

This can be done using:

  • a cannula – a small tube that's placed into a vein in the back of your hand or lower arm for a short time
  • a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line – a small tube inserted into a vein in your arm that usually stays in place for several weeks or months
  • a central line – similar to a PICC, but inserted into your chest and connected to one of the veins near your heart
  • an implanted port – a small device inserted under the skin that's kept in place until your treatment course finishes; medicine is given using a needle inserted into the device through the skin

The time it takes to have a dose of intravenous chemotherapy can range from several hours to several days. You usually come into hospital for the treatment and go home when it's finished.

Tablets (oral chemotherapy)

Sometimes it may be possible to have chemotherapy tablets. This is known as oral chemotherapy.

You'll need to come into hospital at the start of each treatment session to get the tablets and have a check-up, but you can take the medicine at home.

Make sure you follow the instructions given by your care team. Taking too much or too little medicine may reduce its effectiveness and could be dangerous.

Contact your care team if you have any problems with your medicine, such as forgetting to take a tablet or being sick shortly after taking one.

Other types of chemotherapy

Less commonly, chemotherapy may be given as:

  • injections under the skin – known as subcutaneous chemotherapy
  • injections into a muscle – known as intramuscular chemotherapy
  • injections into the spine – known as intrathecal chemotherapy
  • a skin cream

Want to know more?

Issues during treatment

During chemotherapy treatment, there are a number of important things to bear in mind.

Side effects

Chemotherapy can causes a range of unpleasant side effects, including:

  • feeling very tired
  • feeling sick and vomiting
  • hair loss

But there are often things you or your care team can do to prevent or reduce these. Read about the side effects of chemotherapy for more about this.

Pregnancy and contraception

Women should avoid becoming pregnant while having chemotherapy, as many chemotherapy medicines can cause birth defects.

Use a barrier method of contraception, such as a condom, and contact your care team immediately if you think you may have become pregnant.

Men having chemotherapy should use condoms throughout their course of treatment, even if their partner is taking contraception.

Cancer Research UK has more information about sex and chemotherapy.

Taking other medicines

While you're having chemotherapy, check with your care team before you take any other medication – including over-the-counter medicines and herbal remedies.

Other medicines could react unpredictably with your chemotherapy medication, which may affect how well it works and could cause dangerous side effects.

Deciding to stop treatment

Some people decide that the benefits of chemotherapy aren't worth the poor quality of life, due to the side effects.

If you're struggling with the treatment and are having doubts about whether to continue, it's a good idea to speak to your care team. It might also help to discuss things with your, family, friends and loved ones.

Your care team can give you advice about the likely benefit of continuing with treatment, but the final decision will be yours. You have the right to refuse treatment or to ask for it to be stopped if you don't feel it's helping.

Stopping chemotherapy doesn't mean you won't receive any treatment. Your care team will still provide support and relief for your symptoms. This is known as end of life or palliative care.

Read more about end of life care.

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