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Chemotherapy overview

Chemotherapy is the use of cytotoxic (anti-cancer) drugs to destroy cancer cells in the body by disrupting the internal balance of cancer cells and preventing them from growing and dividing. Cytotoxic chemotherapy drugs are specifically designed to damage mutated cancer cells that are unable to repair themselves and while healthy cells are affected, they are much better at repairing themselves once the chemotherapy treatment has finished. Patients may be treated with a single chemotherapy drug or a combination of chemotherapy drugs, known as a combination chemotherapy regimen.

In the UK, there are more than 50 different types of licenced chemotherapy drugs used to treat over 200 different types of cancer. Our consultants are able to provide more information on the types of chemotherapy drugs used and advise patients on the best combination chemotherapy regimen for them.

How chemotherapy works

Anti-cancer, cytotoxic chemotherapy drugs are known as a systemic treatment as they work throughout your system reaching cancer cells around your body. You may also hear them called cytostatic drugs, which means ‘cell stopping drugs’ as chemotherapy drugs work by damaging the cancer cells' ability to reproduce (divide) and grow. As the chemotherapy drugs cycle round the blood, these damaged cells eventually shut down and die.

As chemotherapy drugs affect both cancerous and healthy cells, side effects are expected from chemotherapy and some patients report these side effects as the hardest part of receiving chemotherapy as a cancer treatment. Our consultants will be available to discuss possible side effects and answer any questions our patients may have about how to manage them.

Find out more about Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy overview - Macmillan Cancer Support

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Traditionally, the aim of treating a patient with chemotherapy is to try and cure the patient of their cancer completely - this is known as ‘curative’ chemotherapy. Chemotherapy may also be used to reduce the risk of cancer returning after treatment or removal surgery or used to reduce the risk or prevent cancer cells from spreading. In certain cases, where the cancer cannot be cured, palliative chemotherapy is offered to relieve patient symptoms.

Not all cancers are treated with the same chemotherapy drugs or in the same way. There are many different types of chemotherapy available and new drugs are being developed all the time depending on a patient’s treatment needs.

We use two methods for administering chemotherapy drugs at Rutherford Cancer Centres. Intravenously, which administers chemotherapy drugs or combination chemotherapy regime directly into the bloodstream via a small needle inserted into the hand or arm and orally, via tablets.

Intravenous chemotherapy takes place in our state-of-the-art infusion suites, with space for up to ten treatment areas. Our areas are designed with comfort in mind with plenty of natural lighting and comfortable seating. Patients can choose to take treatment in the open ward, alongside other chemotherapy patients, or in a side room, where they can relax in private with a personal computer or tablet for entertainment.

Chemotherapy is not administered as a single treatment. Instead, the length of the chemotherapy treatment is split into the full course of the treatment and the individual cycles of treatment. Both the course and cycle of each chemotherapy treatment are dependent on a patient’s specific type of cancer, however, the course of chemotherapy can typically take place between 3-6 months, while the cycles tend to last 3-4 weeks at a time. The full course of chemotherapy will commonly be made up of between 4-8 cycles of chemotherapy with a break in-between to allow the body time to recover.

Individual chemotherapy treatments delivered intravenously may take several hours or in some cases, up to a full day, however, the chemotherapy nurses will be able to discuss in detail how long each treatment will take. They will also be able to provide information on the full course or cycle lengths of the treatment.

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