Decorative image


Chemotherapy is the main treatment for cancer of unknown primary. Find out how you have chemotherapy and about the general side effects.

What chemotherapy is

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. The drugs circulate throughout the body in the bloodstream.

As cancer of unknown primary is an advanced cancer, the aim of treatment is generally to relieve symptoms. It can also control the cancer and improve quality of life.

When you have it

Generally, you have chemotherapy every 3 weeks. Each treatment period is called a cycle.

You might have the chemotherapy drugs on the first day or first few days of each cycle, followed by a recovery period with no chemotherapy. Or you might have some chemotherapy drugs once a week for the first 2 weeks of each cycle.

You may have around 6 cycles of treatment, but this will depend on:

  • what chemotherapy drugs you are having
  • how the cancer is responding to treatment
  • the side effects you're having

Chemotherapy drugs

You usually have a combination of 2 or 3 chemotherapy drugs.

We can’t tell you which chemotherapy drugs you are likely to have for cancer of unknown primary. This is because the range of drugs and combinations that doctors might use is so large.

Your doctor chooses drugs that they think will suit you best. This depends on:

  • the results of all your tests
  • the side effects of the drugs
  • your general health and fitness

Once you know which drugs you are going to have, you can learn more about them in our section about cancer drugs.

How you have chemotherapy

You usually have chemotherapy through a drip into your bloodstream. Or you might take some chemotherapy drugs as tablets.

Into your bloodstream

You have the treatment through a drip into your arm. A nurse puts a small tube (a cannula) into one of your veins and connects the drip to it.

Or you might need a central line. This is a long plastic tube that gives the drugs into a large vein, either in your chest or through a vein in your arm. It stays in while you’re having treatment, which may be for a few months.

Taking your tablets or capsules

You must take tablets and capsules according to the instructions your doctor or pharmacist gives you.

Whether you have a full or empty stomach can affect how much of a drug gets into your bloodstream.

You should take the right dose, not more or less.

Never stop taking a cancer drug without talking to your specialist first.

Where you have chemotherapy

You usually have treatment into your bloodstream at the cancer day clinic. You’ll sit in a chair for a few hours so it’s a good idea to take newspapers, books or electronic devices to help to pass the time.

You have some types of chemotherapy over several days. You might be able to have some drugs through a small portable pump you take home.

For some types of chemotherapy you have to stay in a hospital ward. This could be overnight or for a couple of days.

Before you start chemotherapy

You need to have blood tests to make sure it’s safe to start treatment. You have these either a few days before or on the day you start treatment. You have blood tests before each round or cycle of treatment.

Side effects

Common chemotherapy side effects include:

  • feeling sick
  • loss of appetite
  • losing weight
  • feeling very tired
  • a lower resistance to infections
  • bleeding and bruising easily
Contact the doctor or nurse immediately if you have any signs of infection such as a temperature higher than 38C or generally feeling unwell. Infections can make you very unwell very quickly.

Side effects depend on:

  • which drugs you have
  • how much of each drug you have
  • how you react

Tell your treatment team about any side effects that you have.

Most side effects only last for the few days that you’re having the chemotherapy drugs. The team caring for you can help to reduce your side effects.

When you go home

Chemotherapy can be difficult to cope with. Tell your doctor or nurse about any problems or side effects that you have. The nurse will give you telephone numbers to call if you have any problems at home.

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.