What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is a type of anti cancer drug treatment. It works by killing cancer cells. It is a systemic treatment which means it works throughout your body  

Sometimes doctors use the word cytotoxic to describe the way chemotherapy works. Cytotoxic means toxic to 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

There are more than 100 different drugs currently available. New ones are being developed all the time.

How chemotherapy is used

You might have treatment with a single chemotherapy drug or a combination of drugs. The chemotherapy 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
  • targeted cancer drugs
  • immunotherapy
  • a combination of any of these treatments

You might also have high dose chemotherapy 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, immunotherapy or targeted cancer drugs.

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.

  • Clinical Oncology (5th edition)
    P Hoskin
    Taylor and Francis, 2020

  • Cancer Chemotherapy: Basic Science to Clinic
    GS Goldberg and R Airley
    John Wiley and sons, 2020

  • The Royal Marsden Manual of Clinical and Cancer Nursing Procedures (10th edition, online)
    S Lister, J Hofland and H Grafton 
    Wiley Blackwell, 2020

  • Cancer Chemotherapy in Clinical Practice (2nd edition)
    T Priestman
    Springer, 2012

  • Cancer and its Management (7th edition)

    J Tobias and D Hochhauser

    Wiley Blackwell, 2015

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

Last reviewed: 
10 Nov 2023
Next review due: 
10 Nov 2026

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