Chemotherapy: Overview

Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses powerful chemical substances to kill fast-growing cells in the body.  It is most often used to treat cancer, by means of cytotoxic and other drugs.

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Side-Effects; Counter-Indicators and Warnings

The side-effects of chemotherapy depend mainly on the specific drugs and the doses the patient receives.  As with other types of treatment, side-effects may vary from person to person.

Anticancer drugs generally affect cells that divide rapidly.  In addition to cancer cells, these include blood cells which fight infection, help the blood to clot, and carry oxygen to all parts of the body.  When blood cells are affected, the patient is more likely to get infections, may bruise or bleed easily, and may feel unusually weak and tired.

Cells in hair roots also divide rapidly; therefore, chemotherapy may lead to hair loss.  Hair loss is a major concern for many patients.  Some anticancer drugs only cause the hair to thin out, while others may result in the loss of all body hair.  People may cope with hair loss better if they decide how to handle hair loss before starting treatment.

Cells that line the digestive tract also divide rapidly, and are often damaged by chemotherapy.  As a result, side-effects may include poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, and/or mouth and lip sores.

Most side-effects go away gradually during the recovery periods between treatments or after treatment is over.  Sometimes, however, chemotherapy results in a permanent loss of fertility.

A research study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine in July, 2017 suggests that chemotherapy may increase the chance of cancer cells spreading to other parts of the body, and also lead to more aggressive tumors.

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Chemotherapy can help with the following:

Tumors, Benign


Chemotherapy is sometimes given along with radiotherapy and can also be used when the tumor has spread to other parts of the body.  These tumors often respond to chemotherapy.  Drugs that have been shown to be useful include doxorubicin (Adriamycin), cisplatin, Ifosfamide, etoposide and paclitaxel (Taxol).  Because these tumors are rare it is not known which is the best combination of drugs, but chemotherapy can often control the tumor for long periods.

Tumors, Malignant

Hodgkin's Lymphoma

Conventionally, Hodgkin's disease is treated by a team of specialists that may include a medical oncologist, oncology nurse, and/or radiation oncologist.  Treatment usually involves radiation therapy or chemotherapy.  The doctors may decide to use one treatment method or a combination of methods.  Conventional treatments for Hodgkin's disease are very powerful.  It is hard to limit the effects of therapy so that only cancer cells are destroyed.  Because such treatment also damages healthy cells and tissues, it often causes side-effects.

Stomach Cancer

Chemotherapy may be used after surgery to try to reduce the chances of the cancer coming back.  The additional treatment is known as adjuvant chemotherapy.

Thyroid Cancer

Chemotherapy is not very effective against thyroid cancer.  However, doctors may use it to treat thyroid cancer that has spread when other treatments have failed.

Kidney Cancer

Unfortunately, renal cell carcinoma (RCC) has proven to be particularly resistant to chemotherapy.  Research to develop more effective chemotherapy drugs to treat RCC is ongoing.

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