Chemotherapy treatment

Chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. They work by disrupting the growth of cancer cells. The drugs circulate in the bloodstream around the body so they can reach the lymphoma cells wherever they are.

How you have it

You might have chemotherapy into a vein or as tablets. The best treatment for you depends on the type of low grade non-Hodgkin lymphoma you have and your general health.

Chemotherapy into a vein

You usually have your chemotherapy treatments in the outpatient clinic and go home the same day. But with some drugs you may have to stay in hospital overnight.

You might have the treatments as liquids given into a vein (intravenous treatment) or as a combination of intravenous treatment and tablets or capsules.

You usually have CVP chemotherapy (cyclophosphamide, vincristine and the steroid prednisolone) with the targeted cancer drug, rituximab (Mabthera).

If your lymphoma has come back since you were first treated or is at stages 3 or 4, you might have several different chemotherapy combinations, with rituximab or a similar drug. You might have more CVP and rituximab. Or you might have one of the following with rituximab:

  • CHOP (cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine and prednisolone)
  • bendamustine 

Chemotherapy tablets

For some types of low grade lymphoma you might have chemotherapy tablets to take at home.

Doctors often use the chemotherapy drug chlorambucil for people who are not fit enough to have the combination treatments mentioned above. You take the tablets for 1 or 2 weeks at a time and then have 2 or 3 weeks off. The treatment usually goes on for about 6 months.

Intensive treatment

In some situations, doctors might suggest very intensive chemotherapy along with a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. 

You might have it if all signs of your lymphoma have gone (remission) but it is likely to come back. Or your doctor may suggest it if other treatment has not got rid of the lymphoma. Intensive chemotherapy is an experimental treatment for low grade lymphoma. They might also suggest it if there are signs that your lymphoma is changing (transforming) into a high grade non-Hodgkin lymphoma. 

Most high grade (faster growing) non-Hodgkin lymphomas are treated with a combination of several chemotherapy drugs.

You have the treatment through a drip into a vein. Each treatment lasts a few days and you might need to stay in hospital during that time. Then you go home and have a break for 2 or 3 weeks to allow your body to recover from the side effects. The number of treatments you have depends on:

  • which drugs you are having
  • the type of lymphoma you have
  • how your lymphoma is responding to treatment
  • how your body is coping with the side effects

The treatment usually lasts for at least 6 months. But sometimes you have treatment once a week instead of once every few weeks. In this case the treatment lasts for 3 or 4 months.

Chemotherapy drug combinations

Lots of different drug combinations are used. Most of them include the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin, as it works well for many types of high grade non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The most common treatment is CHOP, which is made up of the drugs cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine and prednisolone. You usually have CHOP with the targeted drug rituximab (Mabthera). This is called R-CHOP. 

If the lymphoma comes back, you might need treatment with different combinations of drugs. Again, there are many to choose from. You might have:

  • ICE (ifosfamide, carboplatin, and etoposide) – often given with rituximab (Mabthera) as RICE
  • ESHAP (etoposide, methylprednisolone, cytarabine and cisplatin) – sometimes given with rituximab (Mabthera)
  • DHAP (dexamethasone, cytarabine, cisplatin) – sometimes given with rituximab (Mabthera) as R-DHAP

Intensive treatment

Your doctor might suggest that you have a very intensive high dose chemotherapy treatment such as BEAM. After BEAM treatment you have a transplant of your own or someone else's bone marrow or blood stem cells. You need the bone marrow or stem cells because the chemotherapy kills off some of your own bone marrow cells.

Some types of lymphoma are more likely to spread to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). In certain situations, your doctor might want you to have treatment to prevent this.

The most common treatment is to have injections of the chemotherapy drug methotrexate into the fluid around your spinal cord. But your doctor might suggest having a high dose of methotrexate injected into a vein instead.

You might have this preventative treatment if you have non-Hodgkin lymphoma in: 

  • the space behind your nose (paranasal sinuses)
  • the testicles
  • the bone marrow
  • the breast

Chemotherapy into the fluid that circulates around the brain and spinal cord is called intrathecal chemotherapy. It is very similar to having a lumbar puncture.

After intrathecal treatment you have to lie flat or with your head slightly lower than your feet for a few hours. You might have a bad headache or feel sick.

To help you avoid getting a headache, your doctor or nurse asks you to stay lying down for a while. Tell them if you have a headache or feel sick and they will give you medicines to help.

Into your bloodstream

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

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.

Talk to your healthcare team before you stop taking or miss a dose of a cancer drug.

Where you have chemotherapy

You usually have treatment into your bloodstream at the cancer day clinic. You might sit in a chair for a few hours so it’s a good idea to take things in to do. For example, newspapers, books or electronic devices can all help to pass the time. You can usually bring a friend or family member with you.

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

Some hospitals may give certain chemotherapy treatments to you at home. Your doctor or nurse can tell you more about this.

Before you start chemotherapy

You need to have blood tests to make sure it’s safe to start treatment. You usually have these the day 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
  • increased risk of getting an infection
  • bleeding and bruising easily
  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • hair loss
Contact your doctor or nurse immediately if you have signs of infection. These include a temperature above 37.5C or below 36C, 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 a few days or so. Your treatment team can help to manage any side effects that you have.

Dietary or herbal supplements

We don't yet know much scientifically about how some nutritional or herbal supplements might interact with chemotherapy. Some could be harmful.

It is very important to tell your doctors if you take any supplements, or if you are prescribed them by alternative or complementary therapy practitioners. 

Talk to your specialist about any other tablets or medicines you take while you are having active treatment.

Some studies seem to suggest that fish oil preparations might make some chemotherapy drugs work less well. If you take or are thinking of taking these supplements, talk to your doctor to find out whether they could affect your treatment.

When you go home

Chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma 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.

For support and information, you can call the Cancer Research UK information nurses. They can give advice about who can help you and what kind of support is available. Freephone: 0808 800 4040 - Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.
  • Electronic medicines compendium
    Accessed December 2020

  • The role of autologous and allogeneic stem cell transplantation in the management of indolent B-cell lymphoma

    J Kuruvilla 

    Blood, 2016. Volume 127, pages 2093-2100

  • Non Hodgkin lymphoma: diagnosis and management 

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 2016

Last reviewed: 
21 Dec 2020
Next review due: 
21 Dec 2023

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