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Auckland DHB Oncology Services

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Chemotherapy uses specialised medicines to kill cancer cells. These medicines spread throughout the body (systemic treatment) and so can treat cancer cells in most places. Chemotherapy is mostly given as an outpatient treatment.


Chemotherapy is given as cycles and may be given once a day, once a week or even once a month. This depends on the type of cancer and the best regimen as determined by research, your doctor's opinion, and your preference. 


Depending on what type of cancer you have and whether it has spread, your doctor may use chemotherapy to:

  • Eliminate all cancer cells in your body, even when cancer is widespread
  • Prolong your life by controlling cancer growth and spread or
  • Relieve symptoms and improve your quality of life.


Most chemotherapy drugs are given in one of the following ways:

  • You might take a tablet or medicine orally (swallow)
  • It may be given intravenously as an injection over a short period of time or as an infusion over a longer period of time.  For these treatments you come into the Department usually for part of the day.




Side effects


Some people have no side effects at all from chemotherapy. Sometimes, however, chemotherapy will make you feel sick.  Different types of chemotherapy may have different effects. We will discuss these with you before starting any treatment so you know what to expect.  Chemotherapy targets all cells that are quickly dividing, including some normal ones, for example:


  • Cells forming hair (can cause hair loss)
  • Cells of the skin and mouth (can cause mouth ulcers and dry skin)
  • Cells lining the stomach and bowel (can cause nausea, vomiting, and or diarrhoea)
  • Cells in the bone marrow.  This is where your red and white blood cells are made.  White blood cells fight infections, so temporarily you are very prone to these and they can become serious. Loss of red blood cells can make you anaemic and tired.




There are many medicines you can take to reduce or lessen these unwanted effects of chemotherapy.


In some cases, chemotherapy may be the only treatment you need. It is often used with other treatments, such as surgery or radiation, to improve results. For example, you may receive:


  • Neoadjuvant chemotherapy. The goal of neoadjuvant therapy is to reduce the size of a tumour with chemotherapy before surgery or radiation therapy.
  • Adjuvant chemotherapy. Given after surgery or radiation, the goal of adjuvant chemotherapy is to eliminate any cancer cells that might remain in your body following earlier treatment.

This page was last updated at 3:29PM on July 24, 2019.