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About Chemotherapy

When treating cancer, the goal may be to cure the cancer, lower the chance that cancer will return or slow the growth of tumours that cause pain or other problems. Chemotherapy may both extend life and/or increase your quality of life.  

Chemotherapy (also known as chemo) is the name used for some types of anticancer medications. These medications are used to cure or control fast-growing cancer, to prepare a patient for other treatments like surgery or to ease cancer symptoms.   

All chemotherapy medications are antineoplastic, meaning they slow cancer growth, or stop the growth of tumours (neoplasms). Some chemotherapy medications are cytotoxic, meaning they kill cells. Chemotherapy affects all fast-growing cells in the body, not just cancer cells. This is why there are many side effects associated with chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy is often given as a systemic therapy, meaning the medication travels in your blood, through your body, to kill cancer cells or slow down their growth. Sometimes only one chemotherapy medication is needed, but for many cancers a combination of medications (often called a regimen) works better. Think of a regimen as the “recipe” and each of the chemotherapy drugs as the “ingredients.”

Chemotherapy medications come in many different forms:

  • A tablet, capsule or liquid taken by mouth
  • A shot given by a needle into the skin, a muscle, or a vein (also called I.V. or intravenous chemo)
  • A cream, ointment or lotion that is put onto skin


A complete response to chemotherapy happens when all detectable cancer is gone. Some cancer cells may still remain in the body, but cannot be found with current methods of detection. A partial response to chemotherapy happens when the amount of cancer in the body, or the size of a tumour, shrinks by more than half.