Chemotherapy, also called “chemo,” is treatment with drugs that block or
slow down cell growth, most often for cancer. There are many chemotherapy drugs, and often several
are given together. Depending on the type of cancer, its size, and whether it has spread,
chemotherapy may cure the cancer, slow or prevent its spread, or make its symptoms better.
Chemotherapy is often used with other cancer treatments, such as radiation or surgery. For instance,
a patient may be given chemotherapy to shrink a tumor before surgery or radiation or to help kill
any cancer cells that may be left afterward. Chemotherapy is sometimes administered with other
nonchemotherapy agents such as antibodies that also block or slow down tumor growth.
Chemotherapy is administered
Most commonly, by infusion into a vein or artery
Directly into an area of the body, such as the spine or abdomen
As an injection into the arm, leg, or other area
By mouth as a pill or liquid
Into the skin as a cream
Sometimes people are admitted to the hospital for chemotherapy, but most receive it at home, at a
hospital, or at a clinic. You might receive chemotherapy daily, weekly, biweekly, or monthly
depending on the type of cancer, whether it has spread, and how your body responds to the treatment.
Time between treatment cycles allows the body to rest.
Chemotherapy drugs are strong medicines that work to kill cancer cells. However, they kill
healthy cells as well. As a result, people undergoing chemotherapy often have side effects, which
can be uncomfortable.
Nausea and vomiting are among the most common side effects.
Hair loss—although many people lose their hair, it usually grows back. Women may choose to
wear wigs or scarves.
Mouth and skin changes—chemotherapy affects cells that divide quickly, including healthy
mouth and throat cells, so you may develop mouth or throat sores or skin problems such as dryness or
Fatigue—it is common for chemotherapy to make you feel tired and lacking in energy.
Fewer red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets—chemotherapy affects the bone
marrow and therefore the blood cells. In addition to tiredness from fewer red blood cells, fewer
white cells make it harder to fight infections, and fewer platelets can mean you bleed more easily.
Talk to your doctor about any questions or concerns you have about chemotherapy.
National Cancer Institutewww.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/chemotherapy-and-you
American Cancer Societywww.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/chemotherapy/index
To find this and previous JAMA Patient Pages, go to the Patient Page link on
JAMA’s website at jama.com. Many are available in English and Spanish.
Conflict of Interest Disclosures: The author has
completed and submitted the ICMJE Form for Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest and none
Source: Papadakis M, et al. Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment
2013. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2013.
Topic: Cancer Treatment
Sugerman DT. Chemotherapy. JAMA. 2013;310(2):218. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.5525