Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancerous cells, most specifically any cells that are rapidly reproducing. Chemotherapy is the most common form of cancer treatment that is prescribed. Chemotherapy can be given in different ways, such as intravenously or in pill form, depending on the type of type of drug and patient’s needs or preferences.

There are many different types of chemotherapy, and these may be given individually or combination to treat cancer. Chemotherapy may also be combined with other forms of cancer treatment, such as radiation therapy or surgery. There are many stigmas associated with chemotherapy, such as harmful side effects and ineffectiveness. Due to these perceptions, the word chemotherapy is less widely used. Physicians have begun mostly classifying medications used to kill cancerous cells as chemotherapy, while calling other types of cancer medication drug therapy or medication therapy.

Types of Chemotherapy

Many different types of drugs are used in chemotherapy, including:

  • Alkylating agents
  • Anti-tumor antibiotics
  • Antimetabolites
  • Mitotic inhibitors
  • Topoisomerase inhibitors
  • Corticosteroids
  • Targeted therapies
  • Differentiating agents


Alkylating agents stop the growth of cancer by killing the cells. These drugs cause damage to DNA, so side effects may include development of leukemia and bone marrow disorders. While the risk of side effects is high, alkylating agents are known to be effective, and are used to treat many different types of cancer.

Anti-tumor antibiotics interfere with enzymes that help the cell to reproduce. This blocks cell reproduction in all phases. However, anti-tumor antibiotics may cause damage to heart tissue. Antimetabolites work by damaging cells in certain phases of development to prevent growth and spread.

Topoisomerase and mitotic inhibitors interfere with enzymes to avoid cell reproduction, like anti-tumor antibiotics. However, the risk of developing second types of cancer is high with topoisomerase inhibitors, and mitotic inhibitors may cause nerve damage.

Corticosteroids may used to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells, or they can be used to reduce the side effects of other types of chemotherapy. Targeted therapies are newer types of chemotherapy drugs that can target cancer cells more specifically than older types of drugs. Differentiating agents help replace certain elements of cancer cells in an effort to make the cells mature into a normal, healthy cells.

How Chemotherapy is given

Intravenous cancer chemotherapy can be inserted into a vein, if it is most effective. It can also be inserted into other areas, such as the spine, to treat certain types of bone cancer. Chemotherapy is most often given intravenously, but that is just one way of administering drugs. Depending on the type of drug, the type of cancer, and the patient’s preference, chemotherapy can be given in a variety of ways.

Chemotherapy can be applied in a cream form to treat skin cancer. To treat certain types of cancer, chemotherapy can be directly injected or inserted into the unhealthy cells in some cases, such as treating bladder cancer by inserting chemotherapy drugs into the urethra. During surgery, some types of chemotherapy drugs can be inserted into the body as wafers next to tumors that cannot be removed. These wafers will dissolve slowly while in the body, directly treating tumors. Some types of chemotherapy may be effective when taken in pill form.

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

The side effects of chemotherapy cover a wide range, as there are many types of drugs used in cancer chemotherapy and each patient may react differently to the drugs given. Patients should speak to the physician about any fears of side effects, as emotional and psychological factors may play a part in worsening side effects. Side effects cannot be predicted beforehand, as some patients experience no side effects, while others may experience side effects that are worse than the original cancer symptoms.

Common side effects of traditional chemotherapy drugs include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Hair loss
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Changes in skin and nails
  • Changes in bladder or bowel function
  • Lowered immunity




“Chemotherapy.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical education and Research, 31 Jul 2013. Web. 21 Nov 2013. <>.

“Chemotherapy.” Medline Plus. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 31 Oct 2013. Web. 21 Nov 2013. <>.

“Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.” American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society, n.d. Web. 21 Nov 2013. <;.