For decades chemotherapy has been one of the main treatments used to fight cancer. Learn exactly what chemotherapy is, how it works, and what the treatment involves from a patient perspective, including side-effects.

In this video, a cancer specialist nurse explains how chemotherapy works.

Chemotherapy involves using cytotoxic drugs to kill cancer cells. It can treat cancer cells anywhere in the body because it circulates in the blood. There are many types of chemotherapy drugs that can be given individually or in combination. Chemotherapy can also be used in conjunction with other treatments, including radiotherapy, hormone therapy and biological drug therapies.

Why chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy can be given for different reasons, depending on your cancer.

  • It can be used to destroy the cancer completely
  • It can be given before or after surgery or radiotherapy to ensure that cells that cannot be seen are killed, thus reducing the chance of the cancer returning
  • Where a cure is not possible, chemotherapy can be given to control the growth of the cells. This is known as palliative chemotherapy.

How is chemotherapy given?

Chemotherapy drugs are administered in various ways:

  • By injection, or infusion, into a vein (intravenous chemotherapy)
  • By injection into a muscle (intramuscular chemotherapy)
  • Under the skin (subcutaneous chemotherapy)
  • By injection into the fluid around the spinal chord (intrathecal chemotherapy)
  • Directly into a body cavity, e.g., the bladder (intracavity chemotherapy)
  • Orally as a tablet or capsule (Find out more about oral therapies)
  • Applied as a cream to the skin.A lot of chemotherapy drugs can be given on an outpatient basis; however, some treatments require a stay in hospital.

A lot of chemotherapy drugs can be given on an outpatient basis; however, some treatments require a stay in hospital.

Watch a cancer specialist nurse talk about how treatment is given.

Methods of injection

There are different ways of injecting chemotherapy into the bloodstream.

  • Cannula: the nurse or doctor inserts a very fine tube into the patient’s arm or hand and the chemotherapy is given through this. The cannula is usually removed on the same day.
  • PICC line (peripherally-inserted central catheter, also called Groshong): this is a flexible tube that is inserted into a vein in the arm and advanced up until the tip sits in the right atrium of the heart. This catheter can be left in position for a number of months.
  • Central line: inserted through the skin in the chest into a major vein, this line can also be left in place for a number of months.
  • Port (also known as a portacath): this has a small reservoir implanted under the skin; it does not have an external catheter. A needle is inserted into the reservoir and removed at the end of the treatment. The port can be used for as long as needed.

Side-effects of chemotherapy

Watch the video below to see how to manage side-effects and find out who to contact if you develop them during the course of your treatment.

For more information on the side-effects of chemotherapy please see our page on the side-effects of cancer treatments.

Life after chemotherapy

Many people are surprised at how long it takes to get back to normality after treatment. In fact, it can take at least a year for you to get over the effects of treatment. Don’t be in a rush to get back to your normal routine with work, just do as much as you are comfortable with.

You may feel very anxious after treatment. You may miss the regular contact with the people who looked after you in hospital or worry about the cancer coming back. There are support groups available that provide patients and family with information, advice and emotional support. See our video below for more information about cancer support services available  to you.


Following you treatment you will have regular follow-up visits with your specialist. These will allow your doctor to check for signs of recurrence of the cancer, or follow up on any side-effects you still have.

Your doctor will also be able to check for signs of new side-effects that may develop after you have finished your treatment. In rare cases, some types of chemotherapy may cause long-term damage to the heart and lungs.

There is also a slight risk of developing a second cancer because of the treatment. If you are between check-ups, therefore, and you have a symptom or problem that worries you, it’s very important to let your doctor know.

For more information, please see our Understanding Chemotherapy booklet.

How to find information on chemotherapy drugs

If you would like information on individual chemotherapy drugs, speak to your consultant or specialist nurse.

You can also find information about your chemotherapy drugs from the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA). The HPRA is the state agency that regulates medicines, medical devices and other health products. 

How to find information on your drugs:

  • To find out information about an individual drug, put the trade name of your drug in the search box here Your doctor or nurse will give you the trade name of your drugs.
  • Once you click on the drug name, then go to the package leaflet at the bottom of the page.
  • In some cases this may redirect you to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) where you will need to search for the drug name again.

Call our Cancer Nurseline

Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a specialist cancer nurse
It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 6pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm

Date Last Revised: 
Monday, April 20, 2015