Chemotherapy is a term for a large number of drugs with different methods of working and different side effects.
Chemotherapy works by damaging rapidly dividing cells such as cancer cells. It can also affect your normal cells. Usually the effect on normal cells is temporary and they are able to recover.
Chemotherapy is used to improve the chance of cure or to control the growth of cancer cells.
It can also be given at the same time as radiation therapy to improve the local effects.
It may be given to reduce the symptoms of cancer and to improve quality of life, this is known as palliation.
Chemotherapy is given:
- in tablet or capsule form (do not crush or open capsule, avoid touching tablets/capsules)
- into the vein (intravenously by inserting a needle into the vein or a central venous access device)
- into your spinal cord or the fluid surrounding your brain (Lumbar puncture or via Ommaya reservoir)
- injection into tissue under the skin (subcutaneous)
- injection into the muscle (intramuscular).
When administering chemotherapy your nurse will wear a gown, goggles, gloves and a mask.
Looking after yourself during chemotherapy treatment
It is important to eat a well-balanced diet to help you stay well nourished. Good nutrition can help you cope better with the side effects of treatment, help wounds and damaged tissues heal, improve your immune system, and help maintain your weight and muscle strength. Treatment side effects may occur that make eating and drinking difficult for you.
A Dietitian is available should you have any concerns with your eating or weight loss or gain during treatment.
It is important to:
- maintain your daily fluid intake at 2 litres/day
- always carry a water bottle with you
- take small sips frequently
A diagnosis of cancer can be a difficult and challenging time for you and the people who care for you. It may affect your physical, emotional and financial wellbeing. It can be helpful to talk to someone.We have put together a list of resources to support patients, carers and families.
Managing side effects of chemotherapy
The main areas of your body that may be affected by chemotherapy are those where normal cells grow quickly. These cells are found in:
- bone marrow (where blood cells are made)
- digestive tract (this includes the mouth, throat or oesophagus, small and large bowel and the rectum)
- reproductive organs.
Most side effects are temporary and differ for each person. Precautions are taken to prevent or reduce these effects and your side effects do not indicate whether treatment is working.
Effect on the cells of the body
- Red cells – which carry oxygen to all the body’s cells. If your red blood cell count is low you can feel tired, dizzy and breathless and/or have heart palpitations. If this happens your doctor may suggest a blood transfusion.
- Platelets – which help to clot blood. Low levels of these cells may cause an increased risk of bleeding or bruising.
- White cells – protect against infection. If your white blood count is low, you are more likely to pick up a cold or other infection. It is especially important to prevent and treat infection during your treatment with chemotherapy.