Courtesy of Raymond Blank Children's Hospital

Chemotherapy is a general term for medications used to destroy or stop the growth of cancer cells. Your child’s treatment plan will use the best medicine or combination of medicines available to most effectively combat your child’s specific type and stage of cancer.

Why Chemotherapy Medicines are Used

Chemotherapy medicines are given for several reasons:

How Chemotherapy Works

Chemotherapy works by interfering with the ability of cancer cells to divide and duplicate themselves. Chemotherapy can be given through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells all over the body, or it can be delivered directly to specific cancer sites.

Each chemotherapy medicine works to prevent cells from growing, by:

Often a combination of drugs will be used, with each medicine attacking the cancer cells in a special way. This decreases the chances that cancer cells will survive, become resistant and continue to grow.

Giving Chemotherapy Medicines to a Patient

Chemotherapy is given in different ways depending on the cancer type and the medicines used.

For many patients, the medical team will surgically install a central venous line (catheter) in a vein in the chest (subcutaneous port) or arm before chemotherapy starts. The line will allow treatments to be given and blood samples taken without being “stuck” with a needle. At the end of the treatment, the central line will be removed.

Choosing Chemotherapy Medicines

Many years of research and experience have created successful treatment plans for some types of cancer. For other cancers, research is now underway to find the most effective treatment. Many children are treated according to clinical trial protocols. Each protocol is based on the best available treatment (standard of care) with slight variations that are believed to reduce side effects or improve success. A trial may study two or more different treatment plans, each believed to be effective, with the goal of identifying if one is more effective than the other.

Treatment plans are created using the following guidelines:

Tips for Parents

Why Does Chemo Cause Side Effects?

Chemotherapy medicines target rapidly dividing cells, including normal ones. Side effects can occur when these normal cells are damaged. Because normal cells are better able to repair the damage or can often be replaced by other healthy cells, side effects are usually temporary.

Factors influencing side effects include:

Despite monitoring the effects of chemotherapy very closely, some long-term effects can occur. Some effects may not be known until years after therapy is completed. Therefore, it is important that every patient be followed throughout his or her life by a physician who is aware of the late effects of cancer treatment.

Common Side Effects of Chemotherapy


—Anemia (a low red blood cell count) can cause excessive tiredness, pale skin color, shortness of breath, irritability, decreased attention span, headaches, and dizziness.

Bruising and Bleeding

— Destruction of blood platelets can result in bruising and bleeding. Known as thrombocytopenia, it is caused by a lack of sufficient platelets to form a clot and stop bleeding.

Diarrhea or Constipation

—The intestines can be affected by chemotherapy. Proper diet and nutrition can help avoid or reduce these symptoms.


—Fever may be a sign of serious infection. Chemotherapy often temporarily destroys white blood cells, which are the body’s primary defense against infection. If your child has a fever while undergoing chemotherapy treatment, call the doctor right away.

Hair Loss

—Some chemotherapy causes hair loss or thinning of the hair. Hair will almost always grow back when treatment is finished, but it may have a different color or texture.

Mouth and Throat Sores

—Rapidly growing cells that line the mouth, throat and digestive tract can be temporarily destroyed by chemotherapy medicines. This can cause sores, also called mucositis, which cause minor to severe pain. With time, healthy cells will grow back and the sores will heal.

Nausea and Vomiting

—Chemotherapy can cause nausea and vomiting by affecting both the gastrointestinal tract and the message center in the brain responsible for nausea and vomiting. Medicines can be given prior to and during chemotherapy treatments that will help minimize or prevent these symptoms.

Organ Damage

— Chemotherapy drugs may affect organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, and brain, causing temporary or permanent damage. Some drugs may also affect hearing.

Talk with your child’s healthcare team to understand potential side effects, and to be aware of medical monitoring designed to avoid damage during treatment. You should notify them as soon as there are any changes in your child’s health.

Chemotherapy Medications

It is important to have a basic understanding of the types of chemotherapy that will be used in treatment as well as the most common side effects. Talk to your child's healthcare team to get more information about the specific chemotherapy medicines that will be part of your child's treatment plan.

© The Children's Oncology Group
The information and content provided on this website is made available for informational purposes only for children and their families affected by cancer. While the Children's Oncology Group strives to provide accurate and up-to-date information, the information may be out of date or incomplete in certain respects. Please do not rely on this information and seek the care of a qualified medical professional if you have questions regarding a specific medical condition, disease, diagnosis or symptom. The information and content presented herein is not intended to replace the independent clinical judgement, medical advice, screening, health counseling, or other intervention performed by your (or your child's) health care provider. Please contact "911" or your emergency services if this is a health emergency. No endorsement of any specific tests, products, or procedures is made herein.