Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer using anti-cancer drugs. The aim is to destroy cancer cells while causing the least possible damage to normal cells. The drugs kill cancer cells by stopping them from increasing in number.

Chemotherapy may be offered with radiation, and is usually given to women who have a high risk of the cancer returning, to try to prevent it coming back. It may also be advised for women whose cancer is advanced when they are first diagnosed to try to shrink the cancer or to relieve symptoms caused by the cancer. If cancer returns after surgery or radiation treatment, chemotherapy may be used to control the growth of the cancer and to help relieve symptoms. It is also used if the cancer does not respond to hormone treatment.

Chemotherapy is usually given through a drip inserted into a vein. At first it may be given with external beam radiation followed by internal radiation (brachytherapy). You may then have more chemotherapy. You will be closely monitored during this time. Treatment cycles are usually two to four weeks apart. Spacing out your treatment in this way gives your body a chance to recover from any side effects.

Photographer: Louise Goossens

Above: A woman talking about her medication with a nurse in the Chemotherapy Suite.

Side effects of chemotherapy

The side effects of chemotherapy vary according to the type of drugs used. Your doctor will talk to you about these side effects and how to manage them.

Side effects may include feeling sick (nausea), vomiting, feeling off-colour and tired, and some thinning or hair loss. Most side effects are temporary and steps can often be taken to either prevent or reduce them.

For a copy of the Cancer Society’s booklet Chemotherapy/Hahau: A guide for people having chemotherapy, contact the cancer information nurses on the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237), contact your local Cancer Society for a copy or view or download it from the Cancer Society’s website.

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