This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on June 1, 2022.

What is chemotherapy?

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.

Available 24/7 to discuss treatment options

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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.

Chemotherapy questions to ask your cancer care team

Before you decide that chemotherapy is the right treatment for you, it’s important to be informed and learn as much as you can about the risks and benefits and what to expect. Don’t hesitate to ask your cancer care team any questions you may have to help you prepare.

The American Cancer Society offers a helpful and comprehensive list of questions you may ask your doctor or nurse before starting chemotherapy treatment. Some of those questions include:

  • Which chemotherapy drugs will I be given, and how will they be given to me?
  • How often will I need to get chemotherapy?
  • How long will my treatments last?
  • Will I also need surgery, radiation or both? If so, when and why? What results can I expect?
  • What can I do to get ready for treatment and decrease the chance of side effects?
  • Can I take my other medicines, vitamins and/or supplements while getting chemotherapy?
  • What will we do if this chemotherapy doesn’t work?

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.

Common chemotherapy side effects to prepare for

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

Because chemotherapy drugs kill rapidly growing cancer cells, they also can harm healthy cells in the process. This can cause several different side effects.

It’s important to remember that your reaction to chemotherapy may be different from someone else’s, even when taking the same chemotherapy regimen. The severity of these side effects depends on your health, age and the type of chemotherapy drugs given.

Chemotherapy side effects may include:

  • Fatigue: Fatigue is a common reaction to chemotherapy due to the treatment itself and the toll it takes on your body and mind, but also other physiological changes from chemotherapy that cause fatigue, like anemia or appetite loss.
  • Hair loss: Some types of chemotherapy drugs damage the cells that are responsible for hair growth.
  • Anemia (low red blood cell counts): Some types of chemotherapy drugs make it harder for your bone marrow to make new red blood cells.
  • Infection: Chemotherapy drugs may impede the production of new white blood cells, which help fight infection.
  • Easy bruising and bleeding: When chemotherapy drugs affect the bone marrow's ability to make platelets (which help your blood clot when you bleed), you may bleed or bruise more easily or excessively.
  • Nausea and vomiting: Some types of chemotherapy can cause nausea and/or vomiting.
  • Appetite changes and weight changes: Some chemotherapy drugs may diminish your appetite and cause weight loss, while others may boost your appetite and lead to weight gain.
  • Constipation: Some chemotherapy drugs, as well as medicines used to manage pain, can cause constipation.
  • Diarrhea: When chemotherapy drugs damage the healthy cells in your intestines or cause your bowels to speed up, diarrhea may occur.
  • Mouth, tongue and throat problems, such as sores and pain with swallowing: If the fast-growing cells in your mouth, throat and lips are damaged by chemotherapy, you may experience problems like mouth sores and infections of your gums, teeth or tongue.
  • Peripheral neuropathy or other nerve problems, such as numbness, tingling and pain: Chemotherapy drugs can damage your nervous system.
  • Skin and nail changes such as dry skin and color change: Some types of chemotherapy drugs may damage the fast-growing cells in your skin and nails.
  • Urine and bladder changes and kidney problems: Chemotherapy can harm cells in the kidney and bladder, causing symptoms like burning or pain when urinating.
  • Fertility problems and changes in libido and sexual function: Some types of chemotherapy drugs can damage the ovaries in women or sperm cells in men, potentially resulting in infertility. Chemotherapy’s effects on the reproductive system may also alter hormone levels, impacting sexual function and libido.

Your chemotherapy prep checklist

Planning ahead for chemotherapy treatments may help make you more comfortable, keep track of important information and limit the number of things you’ll have to do after treatment.

  • Connect with your cancer care team on questions about treatment and what to expect. Before you start chemotherapy treatment, you’ll be asked to sign a consent form. Prior to signing, it’s important that you fully understand details of your treatment, such as the types of drugs you’ll be given, side effects and other options you might have.
  • Schedule an appointment with your dentist. Seeing the dentist a month before your treatment begins may help get a check on your oral health and help prevent serious mouth problems from side effects. Chemotherapy can make you more susceptible to infections, including in your mouth. An appointment ahead of your chemotherapy treatments may help your dental care team address outstanding concerns.
  • Call your pharmacist. Part of planning for chemotherapy treatments includes preparing for potential side effects afterward. Call your pharmacist to have your medication prescriptions filled ahead of time.
  • Ask a loved one to escort you to and from your appointment. It’s also helpful to have a loved one with you to take notes and help with medication instructions and other to-dos after treatment. If you’re going by yourself, recording notes on your phone may be helpful to review later.

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:


During treatment with chemotherapy, you’ll visit your doctor often to determine how the treatment is going, how it’s affecting you and how well it’s doing its job and destroying cancer. During your visits, you may need to have several tests and exams, such as blood tests or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, to see how well your treatment is working. Your doctor is the best resource to ask about the results of chemotherapy. He or she will keep you updated on your treatment's progress.

While you should pay close attention to your side effects and share them with your doctor, you should not assume that their severity is associated with the treatment's success. In fact, side effects are not at all related to how well the chemotherapy is working.