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What chemotherapy is

Chemotherapy literally means drug treatment. In cancer treatment, it means using anti cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells.

Whether chemotherapy is a suitable treatment for you, and which drugs you might have, depends on:

  • your type of cancer
  • what the cancer cells look like under a microscope
  • whether the cancer has spread
  • your general health

You may have just one chemotherapy drug or a combination of different chemotherapy drugs. There are more than 100 different drugs currently available and new ones are being developed all the time. You may have chemotherapy with other types of cancer drugs.

Sometimes doctors use the term cytostatic drug to describe the way some anti cancer drugs, including chemotherapy work. Cytostatic means cell stopping.

How chemotherapy is used

You might have treatment with a single chemotherapy drug or a combination of drugs. New ones are being developed all the time.

The chemo drugs you have depend on where in your body the cancer started (your type of cancer). This is because different drugs work on different types of cancer.

So the drugs you need for a cancer that started in the breast and has spread to the lung might be different to the drugs you would have for a cancer that started in the lung.

You might have chemotherapy on its own. Or you could have it with other treatments, such as:

  • radiotherapy
  • surgery
  • hormone therapy
  • biological therapy
  • a combination of any of these treatments

You might also have high dose chemotherapy treatment as part of a bone marrow or stem cell transplant.

Chemotherapy drug names

Generic names and brand names

Drugs have a generic name and they might also have one or more brand names.

  • The generic name is the chemical name of the drug – for example, paracetamol
  • The brand or trade name is the name given to the drug by the company that makes it – such as Panadol or Calpol

Drugs might be made by more than one company and so may have more than one brand name. For some drugs the brand or trade name is the most commonly used name. For other drugs the generic name is the most often used. 

You can ask your chemotherapy nurse, pharmacist or doctor to tell you the generic name and the brand names of the drug they’re using in your treatment.

Combination chemotherapy names

Doctors often treat cancer with 2 or more chemotherapy drugs. Sometimes they also combine chemotherapy drugs with other medicines, such as steroids or biological therapies.

The drug combinations they use often have a name that's made up from the first letters of the drug names. This type of made up word is called an acronym.

Some combination chemotherapy names are simple, like MIC:

  • M = mitomycin
  • I = ifosfamide
  • C = cisplatin

Not all acronyms are so obvious. One example is CHOP:

  • C = cyclophosphamide
  • H = doxorubicin
  • O = vincristine (Oncovin)
  • P = prednisolone, a steroid

Ask your doctor what each letter stands for. Ask them to write down the individual names of each drug in full. This will make it easier for you to find information about them.

Many cancer drug names begin with the same letter - and it’s important to be sure which drugs you’re having.

Last reviewed: 
05 Jan 2015
  • The Chemotherapy Source Book (4th edition)
    Michael C Perry
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2008

  • Handbook of Cancer Chemotherapy (8th edition)
    Skeel, R.T. and Khleif, S.N.
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

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