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When chemotherapy is used

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This page tells you when you may have chemotherapy to treat cancer. It has information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

You may have chemotherapy

  • To shrink a cancer before surgery or radiotherapy (neoadjuvant treatment)
  • To try to stop cancer coming back after surgery or radiotherapy (adjuvant treatment)
  • As a treatment on its own in cancers that are very sensitive to chemotherapy
  • To treat cancer that has spread from where it first started

Sometimes people have chemotherapy at the same time as radiotherapy. This is called chemoradiation. It can help the radiotherapy to work, but can also increase side effects.

Types of chemotherapy

Doctors use chemotherapy because it circulates throughout the body in the bloodstream. So chemotherapy can treat cancer cells wherever they are. This is called systemic treatment. Surgery and radiotherapy are local treatments.

The chemotherapy drugs you have are specific to where in your body the cancer started – the type of cancer you have. Different chemotherapy drugs work on different types of cancer.

Why chemotherapy may not be suitable for you

Some types of cancers are not sensitive to chemotherapy, and so your doctor won’t recommend it to treat them.

PDF Download symbol You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the About Chemotherapy section.

 

When you may have chemotherapy

You may have chemotherapy

  • To shrink a cancer before surgery or radiotherapy
  • To try to stop cancer coming back after surgery or radiotherapy
  • As a treatment on its own, if your type of cancer is very sensitive to it
  • To treat cancer that has spread from where it first started

You may have chemotherapy before surgery. The aim is to shrink your tumour so that you need less surgery or to make it easier for your surgeon to get all the cancer out. Shrinking the cancer with chemotherapy may also mean that you can have radiotherapy to a smaller area of your body. Having chemotherapy before other treatments in this way is called neoadjuvant treatment. Sometimes doctors may call it primary treatment.

You may have chemotherapy after surgery or radiotherapy. The aim is to lower the risk of the cancer coming back in the future. This is called adjuvant treatment. The chemotherapy circulates throughout the body and kills off any cancer cells that have broken away from the main tumour before your operation.

Sometimes doctors prescribe chemotherapy at the same time as radiotherapy. This is called chemoradiation. It can make the radiotherapy more effective, but can also increase side effects.

 

Why you may have chemotherapy

Your doctor may suggest chemotherapy if there is a chance that your cancer may spread in the future. Or if it has already spread. Doctors use chemotherapy because it circulates throughout the body in the bloodstream. It is a type of systemic treatment. So chemotherapy can treat cancer cells almost anywhere in the body. Surgery and radiotherapy are known as local treatments because  they only treat the area of the operation or the area the radiotherapy is directed at.

Sometimes cancer cells break away from a tumour. They may travel to other parts of your body through your bloodstream or lymphatic system The cells may settle in other parts of your body and develop into new tumours. These are called secondary cancers or metastases. The drugs circulate in the bloodstream around the body to treat any cancer cells that have spread.

The chemotherapy drugs you have depends on where in your body the cancer started (your type of cancer). This is because different chemotherapy drugs work on different types of cancer. So the chemotherapy drugs you need for a cancer that started in your breast and has spread to the lungs might be different to chemotherapy drugs you would have for a cancer that started in the lung.

 

Why chemotherapy may not be suitable for you

Some cancers are very sensitive to chemotherapy. So it can work very well for them. But some types of cancer don't tend to respond well to chemotherapy. In that case, your doctor is unlikely to suggest is as a treatment for you.

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Updated: 7 March 2013