What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is treatment with anti-cancer drugs given to destroy or control cancer cells. There are over 50 different chemotherapy drugs which can be given on their own or with other chemotherapy drugs. This is called combination chemotherapy.


How does chemotherapy work?

Chemotherapy drugs destroy cancer cells by damaging them so they cannot divide and grow. They work by entering your blood stream and reaching all parts of your body. This is called systemic treatment. 

Chemotherapy drugs can affect normal cells which can cause side effects. These side effects are normally temporary as the healthy cells grow back to normal quickly. Permanent damage is rare with most chemotherapy.

There are three main reasons why we give chemotherapy to patients:

  • Neo-adjuvant therapy: chemotherapy given before surgery with the aim to shrink the tumor, allowing the surgeon to have a better chance of removing a cancer.
  • Adjuvant therapy: given after surgery, usually to prevent the cancer coming back again in the future.
  • Palliative chemotherapy: if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, the aim is to relieve symptoms and slow the growth of the cancer.


How is chemotherapy given?

How your chemotherapy is administered is dependent on the type of cancer and treatment plan you have. It is absorbed into the blood stream, and carried around the body to reach the cancer cells

The most common method of administering chemotherapy is by injecting it into a vein, intravenously (IV). Chemotherapy can also be administered by mouth (orally) in tablet form, by injection into a muscle, intramuscularly, (IM) or under the skin (subcutaneously). In certain cases chemotherapy may be injected into the fluid surrounding the spinal cord (intrathecally).


Side effects

We have a range of information available on the side effects of cancer treatment.


Chemotherapy services

It is our aim to treat you as close to home as possible. Most tests, such as blood tests and x-rays can be carried out in your nearest hospital but for some complex investigations we may ask you to come to the designated specialist centre for your type of cancer.

You may be treated as an inpatient (staying overnight) on either Ward 21 on the QEH Site or Laurel Ward on the UHL site.

You may receive your treatment as an outpatient, known as a day case treatment at one of our Chemotherapy Day Units

  • Chemotherapy Day Units on the Queen Elizabeth Hospital site
  • Suite 8 on the University Hospital Lewisham site

The Chemotherapy Day Units provide a wide variety of chemotherapy treatments and supportive therapies (blood transfusions/venesections) which are carried out by the chemotherapy nurses. The chemotherapy nurses also run a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC line) service for patients requiring a PICC line prior to commencing chemotherapy.

Our Chemotherapy Day Units offer a welcoming environment and before starting any treatment you will be given an appointment called a pre-chemotherapy assessment. This gives you a chance to come to the unit and meet the chemotherapy nurses and administration team who will be caring for you. The chemotherapy nurses will explain what type of treatment you will be having and answer  any questions you may have.



Useful contact details

Chemotherapy Day Treatment teams

University Hospital Lewisham: Suite 8, T: 020 8333 3000 x 6652 

Queen Elizabeth Hospital: Day Treatment Suite, T: 020 8333 3000 x 5310


Patient helpline

Telephone support from the chemotherapy team is available for patients 24 hours a day.

If your care is based at University Hospital Lewisham please use the following details:

T: 07833 435 950 (Monday to Friday, 8.30am-5pm). Outside of these hours, please telephone 020 7188 3754 

If your care is based at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, please use the following details:  

T: 07795 612 236 (Monday to Friday, 8.30am-5pm). Outside of these hours, please telephone 020 7188 3754