If you are diagnosed with cancer, Northwestern Medicine oncology specialists may recommend chemotherapy as part of your treatment. Chemotherapy uses anticancer medications to destroy cancerous cells in your body, or stop them from reproducing or growing. It has been used for many years and is one of the most common treatments for cancer. Chemotherapy may be used alone for some types of cancer, or in combination with other treatments, such as radiation or surgery.

How is chemotherapy administered?

Chemotherapy can be administered in a number of ways, including:

  • Orally, as a pill to swallow
  • As an injection or shot into the muscle or fat tissue
  • Intravenously (directly to the bloodstream, also called IV)
  • Topically (applied to the skin)
  • Directly into a body cavity

To reduce the damage to healthy cells and to give them a chance to recover, chemotherapy is usually administered in cycles. It may be given daily, weekly, every few weeks or monthly, depending upon your condition.

Chemotherapy is usually given in an outpatient setting, such as a hospital, clinic or physician's office. During chemotherapy treatment, you will be closely monitored for adverse reactions. We encourage you to bring along music or something else that offers comfort, such as a book or magazine, to help pass time during your treatments.

Side effects of chemotherapy

While chemotherapy can be quite effective in treating certain cancers, chemotherapy medications reach all parts of your body, not just cancerous cells. Because of this, there may be many side effects during treatment. Being able to anticipate these side effects can help you and your caregivers prepare and, in some cases, prevent these symptoms from occurring. Some medications can reduce side effects and help you recover from chemotherapy more quickly. Most side effects go away when treatment is complete.

As each patient's medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is the reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild or absent. Side effects may occur days or weeks after treatment, or they may occur months, or even years, after chemotherapy has been given.

Be sure to discuss all the possible side effects of chemotherapy with your cancer care team* before you begin treatment. Ask for written information on each medication that you're given, so you know what to watch for and what to report to your physician.

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    Related Resources

    Patient Education: Chemotherapy medications may be used in combination to fight certain cancers. See the list of chemotherapy medications and which types of cancer they treat.


    In the spirit of keeping you well-informed, the physician(s) identified are neither agents nor employees of Northwestern Memorial HealthCare or any of its affiliate organizations. They have selected our facilities as places where they want to treat and care for their private patients.