How does chemotherapy work?

Chemotherapy works by stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, which grow and divide quickly.

What does chemotherapy do?

Depending on your type of cancer and how advanced it is, chemotherapy can:

  • Cure cancer - when chemotherapy destroys cancer cells and they will not grow back.
  • Control cancer - when chemotherapy keeps cancer from spreading, slows its growth, or destroys cancer cells that have spread to other parts of your body.
  • Ease symptoms (also called palliative care) - when chemotherapy shrinks tumors that are causing pain or discomfort.

How is chemotherapy used?

Sometimes, chemotherapy is used as the only cancer treatment. But more often, you will get chemotherapy along with surgery, radiation therapy. Chemotherapy can:

  • Make a tumor smaller before surgery or radiation therapy. This is called neo-adjuvant chemotherapy
  • Destroy cancer cells that may remain after surgery or radiation therapy. This is called adjuvant chemotherapy
  • Help radiation therapy and biological therapy work better
  • Destroy cancer cells that have come back (recurrent cancer) or spread to other parts of your body (metastatic cancer)

How does the doctor decide which chemotherapy drugs to use?

This choice depends on:

The type of cancer you have. Some types of chemotherapy drugs are used for many types of cancer. Other drugs are used for just one or two types of cancer.

  • Whether you have had chemotherapy before
  • Whether you have other health problems, such as heart disease or diabetes

How is chemotherapy given?

Chemotherapy can be given many ways:

Your doctor or nurse will explain how you will receive your specific form of chemotherapy:

  • Mouth (orally)
  • Injection (shot)
  • Injection into a vein or artery
  • Application directly to the skin

Your doctor or nurse will explain how you will receive your specific form of chemotherapy.

What type of doctor administers chemotherapy?

A medical oncologist is the doctor that will determine if chemotherapy is the right treatment based on the type of cancer you have and other factors such as overall health, type of cancer, etc.

Chemotherapy is given by an oncology nurse or your medical oncologist.

To find a Meridian Cancer Care medical oncologist, visit:

Wellness Resources

    • Cancer Health Library

      Cancer Health Library

      With information on everything from nutrition to genetics, a wealth of information awaits patients, survivors and their families here.

      Learn More
    • Take a Vacation from Cancer

      Take a Vacation from Cancer

      From time to time, you may benefit from taking a respite from your cancer diagnosis, even if you can't leave your illness completely behind.

      Learn More
    • Nutrition and Cancer Quiz

      Nutrition and Cancer Quiz

      What effect does diet have on your risk for cancer? Find out by taking this quiz, based in part on information from the American Cancer Society.

      Learn More

Related Services

    • CyberKnife

      CyberKnife Center

      The precision of the CyberKnife treatments reduce patients' radiation therapy sessions from as many as 40 to 5 or less.

      Learn More
    • Diagnostic Imaging

      Diagnostic Imaging

      Our imaging procedures use advanced imaging technology subject to stringent regulatory standards.

      Learn More
    • Surgery


      Meridian Health’s surgical teams of anesthesiologists, registered nurses and board certified, fellowship-trained surgeons work in state-of-the-art operating rooms.

      Learn More