Chemotherapy FAQs

Consult our frequently asked questions for information about concerns that patients and their family often have before starting chemotherapy treatments.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy (also called chemo) is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to destroy cancer cells. It  works by stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, which grow and divide quickly. It can also harm healthy cells that divide quickly, such as those that line your mouth and intestines or cause your hair to grow. Damage to healthy cells may cause side effects. Often, side effects get better or go away after chemotherapy is over.

Depending on your type of cancer and how advanced it is, chemotherapy can cure cancer, control cancer or ease cancer symptoms (also called palliative care).

How does my doctor decide which chemotherapy drugs to use?

This choice depends on the type of cancer you have, whether you have had chemotherapy before, and whether you have other health problems, such as diabetes or heart disease.

How often will I receive chemotherapy?

Treatment schedules for chemotherapy vary widely. How often and how long you get chemotherapy depends on your type of cancer and how advanced it is, the goals of treatment, the type of chemotherapy, and how your body reacts to chemotherapy.  You may receive chemotherapy in cycles, which is a period of chemotherapy treatment followed by a period of rest.

Can I miss a dose of chemotherapy?

It is not good to skip a chemotherapy treatment. But sometimes your doctor or nurse may change your chemotherapy schedule. This can be due to side effects you are having. If this happens, your doctor or nurse will explain what to do and when to start treatment again.

How will I feel during chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy affects people in different ways. How you feel depends on how healthy you are before treatment, your type of cancer, how advanced it is, the kind of chemotherapy you are getting, and the dose. Some people do not feel well right after chemotherapy. The most common side effect is fatigue (feeling exhausted and worn out).

Will I get side effects from chemotherapy?

You may have a lot of side effects, some, or none at all. This depends on the type and amount of chemotherapy you get and how your body reacts. Before you start chemotherapy, talk with your doctor or nurse about which side effects to expect. For more information about side effects, click here.

How will I know if my chemotherapy is working?

Your doctor will give you physical exams and medical tests (such as blood tests and x-rays). He or she will also ask you how you feel. You cannot tell if chemotherapy is working based on its side effects.

Can I work during chemotherapy?

Many people can work during chemotherapy, as long as they match their schedule to how they feel. Whether or not you can work may depend on what kind of work you do. If your job allows, you may want to see if you can work part-time or work from home on days you do not feel well. Talk with your employer about ways to adjust your work during chemotherapy.

Many employers are required by law to change your work schedule to meet your needs during cancer treatment. You can learn more about these laws by talking with our patient navigator.

What are clinical trials and are they an option for me?

Cancer clinical trials (also called cancer treatment studies or research studies) test new treatments for people with cancer. These can be studies of new types of chemotherapy, other types of treatment, or new ways to combine treatments. The goal of all these clinical trials is to find better ways to help people with cancer.

(Source: National Cancer Institute, "Chemotherapy and You")