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Chemotherapy is the use of chemicals or drugs (cytotoxic agents) to disrupt or stop the growth of cancer cells.

What is chemotherapy and how does it work?

Chemotherapy is a drug treatment used to disrupt the growth of cancer cells. The drugs work in different ways. They can:

  • Attack cancer cells and break them down
  • Stop cancer cells from growing
  • Starve cancer cells from the food that they need

The drugs also affect normal, healthy cells. This is why chemotherapy can cause side effects. Most side effects are temporary and stop after you have finished treatment because the healthy cells usually repair themselves.

There are many types of chemotherapy drugs and new medicines are always being developed. You may have one chemotherapy drug or a combination of different types.

When is chemotherapy used?

Whether chemotherapy is a suitable treatment for you depends on different factors. They include:

  • What type of cancer you have and how big it is
  • Whether the cancer has spread or might return
  • your general health

Your consultant will explain the treatment options and whether chemotherapy is likely to be successful.

You may have chemotherapy by itself or with other cancer treatments. Chemotherapy can be used:

  • As the main treatment for some types of cancer, such as blood cancer
  • To make other treatments more effective (for example, chemotherapy can be combined with radiotherapy or reduce the size of a cancer before radiotherapy or surgery)
  • To prevent cancer from returning after radiotherapy or surgery
  • To treat cancer that has spread or control symptoms if there is no cure

Chemotherapy treatment is tailored to meet your individual needs. The nurses involved in your care have many years of experience in the treatment of cancer (oncology) and a pharmacist is also available to answer any questions that you may have regarding your medication. 

How can I prepare for chemotherapy?

Before you start your treatment your consultant will explain the benefits and limitations of chemotherapy and give you specific instructions about how to prepare for chemotherapy. They will also discuss with you, what, if any, side effects you may experience and how to manage them. It is important to ask your consultant any questions you may have. If you are taking any medication, please tell your consultant.

Before receiving chemotherapy, you may need to have tests which may include blood tests, X-rays and scans. We will also record your height and weight to calculate your dose of chemotherapy. You can also visit your dentist for a check-up to avoid any problems with your teeth during treatment. 

If the chemotherapy may affect your fertility, you could consider the options to store your sperm or eggs for the future. Please speak to your consultant about this.

It is a good idea for someone to drive you to and from your first chemotherapy session. We recommend wearing comfortable, loose-fitting clothes. You can pack a small bag of items that help you to feel at ease and pass the time, such as:

  • A warm blanket, cardigan or scarf
  • Snacks, such as fresh fruit, crackers, soup, mints or ginger chews
  • Headphones to listen to relaxing music or guided meditation exercises
  • Something to read, an electronic device, crossword puzzles or crafts
  • A pen and paper to make any notes about your treatment

How is chemotherapy given?

Chemotherapy can be given in several ways, including:

  • Tablets or capsules
  • Injections under the skin
  • Injections under the muscle
  • Intravenously - most of the drugs are given by an injection into the forearm or the back of the hand. A small needle (cannula) is put through the skin into a vein and a drug solution is injected slowly. The drug is distributed throughout the body via the bloodstream.
  • Portacath (a small device put under your skin) or a PICC line (a small tube put into a vein in your arm) - this is typically used if you have treatment over several days or it is hard to access your veins

The most suitable method for you depends on what type of cancer you have and your treatment plan. Sometimes, you may need to have chemotherapy in more than one way.

Depending on which hospital you have your chemotherapy at, you may have the option to receive your medication in your private room, complete with en-suite facilities and satellite TV. Where private rooms are not available, you will have your treatment in a joint room with other chemotherapy patients.

Common side effects of chemotherapy

All chemotherapy drugs have different side effects. For example, many but not all cancer treatments cause hair loss. Your consultant will explain what to expect and how to deal with the side effects.

Common side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • Tiredness
  • Feeling and being sick
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhoea and constipation
  • Hair thinning and hair loss
  • Anaemia
  • Bruising and bleeding
  • Sore mouth including mouth ulcers
  • Skin and nail changes
  • Insomnia
  • Low libido
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Depression
  • Memory and concentration problems
  • Increased risk of getting an infection
  • Numbness or pins and needles in your hands and feet

How will Nuffield Health support me during chemotherapy?

we understand that having chemotherapy can be daunting. Our experienced team combine expertise and compassion to give you the best possible care. The team includes leading cancer consultants (oncologists), cancer nurses, pharmacists, radiologists who interpret scans, a physiotherapist and a dietitian.

Our hospitals that offer chemotherapy have modern facilities and we try to create a calm atmosphere whilst you're receiving your treatment. Our caring nurses give you your chemotherapy and monitor you throughout your treatment session.

We offer a range of support services for you including:

  • Physiotherapy to help with the side effects of chemotherapy
  • Pain management
  • Dietitian service to help improve your strength and energy levels
  • Counselling and psychological support

Please speak to your consultant about the above services.

Highgate Hospital

17-19 View Road, Highgate, London, N6 4DJ

020 8341 4182
Main switchboard 020 8341 4182
Self-pay enquiries and prices 020 8023 7277
Outpatient appointments 020 3918 9522
Physiotherapy 020 8341 4182
Diagnostic Centre 020 8347 3866
Radiology 0208 347 3866
Private GP Service 020 8341 4182
Finance 020 3925 1815

Ways to pay

Nuffield Health promise

Our prices are all-inclusive. We will equal any comparable price. There are no time limits on your aftercare.

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