About chemotherapy

Most chemotherapy drugs travel through the bloodstream to target dividing cells fast

Unfortunately, chemotherapy drugs cannot target only cancer cells. These drugs will also affect some normal cells. Normal cells recover faster than cancer cells though. This will let us damage more cancer cells with every treatment. 

What we use chemotherapy for  

  • As a cure - alone or alongside other treatments to cure some cancers. 
  • As a secondary treatment - before or after the first treatment. The first treatment is also known as primary treatment. 
  • Before primary treatment (neo-adjuvant therapy) - to make the cancer smaller before other primary treatments. These treatments include surgery or radiotherapy. 
  • After primary treatment (adjuvant therapy) - to treat cancer cells left after other treatments. 
  • To control cancer - to control and slow the growth of cancers for extended periods of time. 
  • For symptomatic relief -  to treat the symptoms and pain of cancers that we cannot cure. We call this palliative treatment. 

How we deliver chemotherapy 

The type, length and frequency of chemotherapy differs a lot between patients. It depends on: 

  • The type of cancer you have 

  • The drugs used for treatment  

  • The purpose of your chemotherapy

Usually, we give chemotherapy as a period of treatment followed by a break. We call this a ‘cycle of treatment’. The rest periods between the courses let the healthy cells repair themselves. It also lets the body recover from any side effects. The number and frequency of treatments depends upon the type of cancer you have and the drugs you need. The length of your treatment will depend on how the cancer responds to the drugs. It may take several months. We could give treatments daily, weekly or even monthly within a cycle.

Common types of chemotherapy

Intravenous chemotherapy 

A liquid drip into your vein is the most common way to receive chemotherapy. Most patients receive chemotherapy as an outpatient in our Day Therapy unit, but you might receive your chemotherapy on the ward, or even at home by a portable pump. This is likely if we administer therapy ongoing over several days.  

There are two ways to receive intravenous chemotherapy: 

  • The veins in your arms

  • A device known as a central venous catheter. We place this device into one of the large veins in your chest. We then leave it in there until your course of treatment is complete. Having these inserted feels like having a blood test or an injection

Administering chemotherapy can take between 20 minutes and several hours. This depends on what kind of treatment you are having. Generally, your treatment will be a few hours long. You may have to wait for appointments before or after your treatment. So, make sure you allow more time than you expect your treatment to take. 

Oral chemotherapy 

We can give some treatment by oral tablets or capsules that you take at home. Your treating team will watch your oral chemo. This will let them ensure you take your tablets at the right time and handle them in the right way. 


We can use chemotherapy creams on the surface of the body. This will treat some skin cancers, and you would administer these yourself. 


We can inject chemotherapy into various parts of your body including:  

  • Muscles 

  • Under the skin 

  • Into the fluid around the spine (lumbar puncture) 

  • Into an artery 

  • Into the abdomen 

  • Into the lining of the lung 

  • Into the bladder  

  • Straight into a tumour

Injections are less common than other chemotherapy treatments. 

High-dose chemotherapy 

We use high-dose chemotherapy with bone marrow and stem cell transplants. This treats some blood cancers. We use high-dose chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells in the blood. Then we transplant cells back in the days following chemotherapy. These cells can be your own healthy ones, or cells from a healthy donor. 


We sometimes give chemotherapy and radiation therapy together to treat certain cancers. This combination is known as chemoradiation.  

What does chemotherapy feel like? 

Chemotherapy should not be painful. You may have a cold feeling while the chemotherapy goes into the vein. This is because the chemotherapy fluid is cooler than your blood. Let your nurse know straight away if at any time you feel tingling, burning or pain where the chemotherapy is going into your vein. 

Side effects 

Unfortunately, we cannot use chemotherapy to target only diseased cells, so chemotherapy damages some normal cells as well. This may cause a range of side effects. You may experience many side effects, or you may experience none. 

Your treating team will be able to give you some idea of what symptoms you may expect, but this is only a guide. The side effects depend on the chemotherapy type and dose you are receiving. The cancer type, other treatments, other medications and the individual also affect them. 

Find out more about the side effects of treatment. 

Who can I call for help? 

You can speak to our medical or nursing staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Please have your hospital Patient Unit Record (PUR) number ready when you call the hospital.  

Business hours 

From Monday to Friday, between 8am and 6pm, you can call Day Therapy on (03) 8559 5330. 

The Cancer Council’s 13 11 20 number is staffed Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. Experienced cancer nurses support you, your loved ones, and carers. They do so by supplying emotional and practical support.  

After hours 

Outside these hours you will need to call another number. This includes evenings, weekends and public holidays. At these times, call 03 8559 5000 and ask for the Patient Services Manager. 

When to contact the hospital right away 

You may have one or more of the following symptoms. If so, please call us on 03 8559 5000 straight away and ask for the registrar on call.

These symptoms are: 

  • A temperature over 38˚C or fever and chills (these might point to an infection) 

  • Diarrhoea that continues over 24 hours, particularly if watery 

  • Persistent vomiting that lasts more than 24 hours despite taking antinausea  

  • Nausea lasting more than 48 hours (about two days) despite taking antinausea 

  • Any abnormal bruising and bleeding 

  • Constipation: if you have not opened your bowels for more than two days 

  • A cough or shortness of breath 

  • A sudden decline in your health 

  • Any changes in mood including feeling withdrawn, depressed, or anxious 

If it is a medical emergency call 000. 



Day Therapy

Level 3, 3C Day Therapy 
Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre 
305 Grattan Street 
Melbourne VIC 3000 


Day Therapy

  • Phone: (03) 8559 5308 

More information 

We have adopted this information from the Cancer Council.

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