Chemotherapy is a systemic therapy that often forms part of the treatment regimen for cancer. It is generally used in conjunction with radiotherapy, surgery and/or hormone therapy.
Systemic therapy is treatment via the bloodstream and therefore reaches every part of the body, not just the tumour.
Chemotherapy is the term used for treatment (therapy) of a disease by means of chemical medication (anti-cancer drugs).
The medication is carried to the cancer cells via the bloodstream. The cancer cells are attacked and killed, including those that have spread to the rest of the body.
Different drugs attack the cells at different stages of cell division. By using a combination of drugs, the cancer cells are combated in different ways.
Chemotherapy has three main goals:

  • Cure
  • Control
  • Supporting radiotherapy or surgery

Chemotherapy, on its own or in conjunction with surgery, can cure certain types of cancer.
It is mostly used for cancer that has spread, because it works throughout the body. Chemotherapy can control the size and spread of a tumour, thereby extending the patient’s life expectancy and improving quality of life.
Surgery or radiotherapy is used to remove the tumour. Because chemotherapy can attack cancer cells throughout the body, it is used to ensure that all cancer cells are eradicated. It is also used before surgery to reduce the size of the tumour.
The most common method of administration is intravenous injection or infusion (drip).
It can be administered directly into a vein by syringe, like an ordinary injection. It only takes a few seconds. It can also be administered over a longer period by means of an infusion – the medication flows from a plastic bag suspended from a stand via a plastic tube through the needle into the vein, at a regulated speed. The needle is kept in position with a sturdy plaster and the infusion may last from a few minutes to a few hours.
It is no more painful than an ordinary infection. Sometimes there might be a slight irritation of the vein or the skin at the site of injection.
Treatment may last a few hours and is followed by a rest period of a few days or weeks, to give normal cells a chance to recover. The length of treatment is determined by the drugs used.
The treatment regimen is determined and monitored by oncology team. An oncologist is a specialist in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and is assisted by specialised nursing staff.


  • The oncology team will discuss the goals of the treatment, the treatment regimen and possible side effects with you in detail.
  • Various people may be involved in the treatment, so it can be confusing at first. Do ask questions at this stage, to remove all uncertainties.
  • Although it’s good to be well informed, too much information from different sources can be confusing.
  • It’s very important to talk to the oncologist and nursing staff at the clinic and to keep them informed about your reaction to the treatment.
  • Keep a notebook and write down any side effects of the treatment and questions you might have. Take it with you to each treatment session and consult the oncology team. Keep asking until you feel reassured about your treatment. No question is too unimportant to ask.
  •  It’s quite natural to feel apprehensive about an unfamiliar experience.
  • Try to be positive about your therapy, particularly on the day of the treatment. Think about the effect of the therapy will have on your disease.
  • Set yourself small goals for each day, rather than thinking too far ahead.
After the treatment has started, your body will start excreting the waste products of dead cells. This could make you feel tired or listless.
  • The drugs that attack cancer cells also inhibit division in body cells, particularly those that divide quickly, such as bone marrow cells.
  • Bone marrow produces various cells that need to recover and increase to a certain level after chemotherapy. That is why chemotherapy is administered at intervals, to give normal cells a chance to recover.
  • A blood count measures the levels of these cells in the blood
  • Further chemotherapy is postponed if the blood levels are not normal, because that means the body is not yet ready for the next treatment.
  • Rest as much as possible
  • Go to bed early and rise later
  • Avoid strenuous physical labour or exercise
  • Allow your family or friends to take over tasks such as the children’s lift club and shopping.
  • Learn relaxation techniques
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Avoid pent-up stress and anxiety – talk about your feelings.

Side effects

The side effects of Chemotherapy – such as nausea, vomiting, hair loss, affected sense of taste, Cystitis (bladder infection), Stomatitis, diarrhoea, skin problems and affected sexuality are all explained on our Side Effects page.

  • You won’t necessarily experience all the possible side effects. Side effects depend on what drugs are being used, on the dosage and on the patient’s state of health.
  • The oncology team will discuss possible side effects with you, in accordance with your treatment regimen.
No, the effects of chemotherapy disappear after the treatment has been completed. Possible side effects and hits on how to prevent or alleviate them.