What is chemotherapy?

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Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment. Learn about the different types of chemotherapy medications, how your health-care team decides which types to use, and the role of corticosteroids in cancer treatment.

Key points

  • Chemotherapy medications are used to treat cancer. They work by killing cancer cells but may also damage normal or healthy cells.
  • Corticosteroids are non-toxic medications that help to control inflammation in the body; they are also used in cancer treatment.
  • You may also need to take supportive care drugs to help you manage symptoms and side effects of the cancer treatment.
  • The type of chemotherapy medication your health-care team uses will depend on the type of cancer, where in the body the cancer started and where it has spread.

For more videos regarding teens and cancer, please visit the Teens Taking Charge Cancer playlist.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of medications to treat cancer. You may hear these medications refered to as "chemo" drugs or chemotherapeutic agents.

Chemotherapy medications are considered cytotoxic. This means they may damage normal or healthy cells in addition to killing cancer cells. Special precautions may be needed when handling these drugs.

Other medications, such as corticosteroids, are non-cytotoxic. While they may not require special handling, they are still very important for your treatment.

You may also need to take medicines called supportive care drugs. These medications are not directed at the cancer but may be used to help manage symptoms and potential side effects of treatment.

There are many types of chemotherapy medications. Your health-care team will prescribe chemotherapy based on:

  • the type of cancer you have
  • where in your body the cancer started
  • where in your body the cancer has spread

You might receive just one type of chemotherapy or you might take more than one at the same time. You may also receive different drugs at different times of your therapy.

Chemotherapy can be used alone to treat cancer or combined with other therapies such as radiation or surgery. Chemotherapy may also be needed to prepare you for a bone marrow transplant. You will learn more about these therapies in the section on Cancer treatment and support therapies.

You can find more information about chemotherapy on the main AboutKidsHealth website.

What are corticosteroids?

Corticosteroids are a class of medication that helps to control inflammation in the body. You will often hear these medications called "steroids". However, corticosteroids are not the same as anabolic steroids that are used by some athletes or body builders to increase muscle bulk.

Our bodies naturally produce small amounts of corticosteroids, but they can also be given as medications to treat a wide variety of conditions. Types of corticosteroids that are typically given include prednisone (say: PRED-nuh-zone) and dexamethasone (say: dex-a-METH-a-zone).

Corticosteroids are sometimes used in cancer treatment to destroy cancer cells. Leukemia and lymphoma patients are often given steroids to control their cancer. Patients who have other cancer types may be given corticosteroids to control some of the side effects of cancer or other therapies.

Corticosteroids can also be used to reduce nausea and vomiting due to chemo. Your health-care team will help decide if/when you should use this type of drug.

You can learn more information about corticosteroids from Teen Info on Cancer, a website developed by Macmillan Cancer Support, a UK charity.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019