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Chemotherapy is one of the most common treatment options for many cancers. These anti-cancer drugs work by targeting rapidly growing cancer cells either throughout the body or in a specific area of the body.

When chemotherapy drugs travel through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells, it's known as systemic chemotherapy. When the drugs are directed to a specific area of the body, it's called regional chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy may be used:

  • As a primary treatment to destroy cancer cells
  • Before another treatment to shrink a tumor
  • After another treatment to destroy remaining cancer cells
  • To relieve symptoms of advanced cancer

How are chemotherapy drugs given?

Chemotherapy uses anticancer drugs to destroy rapidly rapidly dividing cancer cells or slow their growth.

How and where chemotherapy drugs may be given depends on a variety of clinical factors and personal preferences. You may receive your chemotherapy at home, in a clinic or outpatient care center, at a hospital or doctor’s office.

Chemotherapy drugs may be administered:

  • Orally: In pill or liquid form are taken by mouth
  • Infusion: Delivered directly into a vein through an intravenous drip. This process may take several hours.
  • Injection: Delivered through a needle injected into a vein, muscle or under the skin
  • Topically: In cream form and are spread on the skin
  • Intrathecal: Delivered directly into the central nervous system
  • Intraperitoneal: Given directly into the abdominal cavity

Chemotherapy drugs are very powerful and may cause side effects in caregivers and family members who come in contact with them. Patients should talk to their doctor before deciding whether to administer their own chemotherapy drugs (in pill, liquid or cream form), or whether to have them given by a medical professional. Patients who may require frequent injections or infusions may opt to get a port or catheter through which drugs may be administered more efficiently and with less pain. How your chemotherapy drugs are administered depends on a variety of factors, including:

  • The drug prescribed
  • The cancer being treated
  • The stage of the disease
  • The health of the patient
  • The patient’s health history, including previous cancer treatments
  • The patient’s personal preference

Depending on your treatment needs, chemotherapy drugs may be given in combinations, in addition to, or before and/or after other treatments, such as surgery, targeted therapy or radiation therapy. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), our medical oncologists and cancer care experts are trained in diagnosing cancer and delivering chemotherapy drugs. They will work closely with you and the rest of your care team to discuss chemotherapy options based on your individual needs.

What to expect

Like every patient and every cancer, every chemotherapy treatment plan is different and tailored to the patient’s specific disease, treatment goals and personal preferences. If chemotherapy is part of your treatment plan, your medical oncologist and care team will talk to you about your options and coordinate your dosage and schedule. In most cases, chemotherapy is administered in time frames called cycles. The length of your cycle and the dosages recommended within each cycle depends on many factors, including your diagnosis and treatment goals.

If you choose to administer your own chemotherapy drugs, talk to your doctor about your dosage schedule, amounts and safety protocols for handling drugs. If infusion is the best option, your care team can tell you when and where to go and how long the treatments will take.

Before chemotherapy

Since infusion sessions may take several hours, you may want to prepare for a long visit to the clinic, infusion center, hospital, or wherever your treatment is taking place.


Stay hydrated

Drink plenty of fluids before during and after your sessions. Consider whether you will be able to work during your chemotherapy cycle.


Be comfortable

Wear loose fitting clothes that allow easy access to a port or catheter. Consider bringing a blanket and pillow.


Keep busy

Bring a book to read or a tablet or laptop computer to your session.


Bring food

Have a light snack and water handy.


Don't go it alone

Arrange transportation before and after your visit. Consider having a friend, family member or caregiver to support you and keep you company during your session.


Ask questions

Don’t hesitate to ask your medical oncologist or other members of your care team any questions about what to expect.

What to ask

You may have many questions about your chemotherapy treatments. Some questions to consider asking include:

  • Can I eat before my chemotherapy? If so, how long before my session?
  • Who do I call after hours if I get a reaction or fall ill?
  • What can I do in advance to prepare for potential side effects?
  • What do I do if I am too sick to receive my next treatment?
  • How might chemotherapy affect my daily activities, such as work, social life, exercise or intimacy?

The American Cancer Society offers a list of recommended questions patients may consider asking their doctors before and during their chemotherapy.

After chemotherapy

Whether you’ve completed your first chemotherapy session or an entire cycle, expect to follow-up with your medical oncologist or other members of your care team. If and when you need a follow-up visit depends on your specific needs and where you are in your treatment.


Monitor side effects

Keep track of your side effects and contact your care team if they become severe. If you have a medical emergency, dial 911.


Stay hydrated

Drink plenty of fluids before during and after your sessions. Consider whether you will be able to work during your chemotherapy cycle.


Use precautions

Chemotherapy drugs may cause side effects and may be harmful to others.

Protect yourself and others

Chemotherapy may weaken your immune system. Stay out of crowded spaces and avoid people you know are sick or may be sick. Wash hands frequently.

Chemotherapy drugs may be passed on to others. These drugs may be found in body fluids, including mucus, sweat, tears, semen, urine, vomit or stool. Keep bathrooms clean and immediately wash towels or clothing that may have fluids on them. Caregivers should wash hands frequently and wear double gloves when necessary.

Throughout your treatment, your medical oncologist will monitor the progress of your chemotherapy regimen and modify your treatment plan accordingly.

Managing side effects

Integrative care helps patients manage side effects with therapies like nutritional support and oncology rehabilitation.

Chemotherapy works by attacking fast-growing cancer cells in the body. But other fast-growing cells in the body, such as those found in bone marrow, the digestive tract and in hair follicles may also be attacked and killed by chemotherapy drugs. That’s why a suppressed immune system, vomiting and diarrhea and hair loss are common side effects of chemotherapy.

Other side effects of chemotherapy may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mucositis, or mouth sores
  • Anemia
  • Constipation
  • Neuropathy
  • Memory loss, or difficulty concentrating
  • Fever

Some side effects may fade away quickly. Others may linger for weeks or months. It’s important to tell your care team of how the side effects of chemotherapy are affecting you and which side effects may be improving or getting worse.

At CTCA®, our medical oncologists work closely with integrative care providers who offer services intended to help manage your side effects and improve your quality of life. Supportive care services that may be helpful to chemotherapy patients under certain circumstances include: