Chemotherapy: planning your treatment

The chemotherapy treatment your doctor recommends will depend on several factors

These include:

  • The type of cancer you have
  • Where the cancer is in your body
  • Where in your body it has spread to (if it has spread)
  • Your general health.

You will be offered the best standard treatment available that current research shows will be most helpful in your situation. 

This is why you may meet other people with the same cancer as you who are having different chemotherapy treatments.

Questions you may wish to ask your doctor about chemotherapy

It is important that you understand what will happen and why. You should be given a chance to ask questions.

To help you think about what you want to ask your doctor, you may find the following questions helpful.

  • What drug or drugs will I be given?
  • How will the drugs be given?
  • Will I have to spend any time in hospital?
  • How often will I need treatment?
  • How long will my treatment go on for?
  • Can I still take other medicines (including any alternative therapies) during my chemotherapy treatment?
  • How will I feel during treatment and are there any side effects I can expect?
  • If there are any side effects, what can be done to help me cope with them?
  • How long will it take for me to recover after I have finished the treatment?
  • Are there any long-term side effects?
  • Will I be able to continue with the same lifestyle that I’m leading now?
  • Can I talk to someone who has had the same treatment?
  • Who should I contact if I am worried about my diagnosis, treatment or prognosis?

Your doctor or nurse will explain your personal drug treatment to you. If you want more details or have any questions, please ask the staff caring for you.

Your treatment plan

A course of chemotherapy is given according to a treatment plan (sometimes referred to as a protocol) and how often you have chemotherapy will depend on this.

Each course usually consists of several cycles of chemotherapy with a rest period between each cycle.

The rest periods are often longer than the treatment periods, so most of the time you’re not actually having chemotherapy.

The rest periods allow your body to recover from any unwanted effects of the drug. As you have more cycles of treatment it is occasionally necessary to extend these rest periods. Don’t worry. This isn’t unusual.

If you’re having oral chemotherapy (tablets or capsules), you may take smaller doses daily for several weeks or months before having a rest period.

Example 1: a six-cycle course of chemotherapy

For each 6 cycles

Day 1: chemotherapy 

Days 2-21: rest period

Example 2: a six-cycle course of chemotherapy

For each of 6 cycles

Day 1: chemotherapy

Days 2–7: rest period

Day 8: chemotherapy

Days 9-21: rest period

How long will my treatment last?

The length of your treatment will depend on how well your disease responds to the drugs, for example, whether your cancer starts to shrink. Your doctors may choose to give you treatment for several weeks and then check your progress. Overall, it may take several months to complete your course of chemotherapy.

When adjuvant chemotherapy is given, the doctor may plan your treatment for a certain length of time known to be effective for people with similar tumours, for example, six months.

How will I know if my chemotherapy is working?

Your doctor will monitor your progress throughout treatment. There are several tests which may be repeated during your treatment. These may include scans, X-rays and blood tests.

All the tests check on your health and the way chemotherapy is affecting you. They will vary from person to person, so if you’re not sure why you’re having a particular test ask your doctor or nurse.

Whether or not you have side effects from chemotherapy is not an indication of how well the treatment is working.

Why has my chemotherapy plan been changed?

Sometimes, as a result of the tests you have during treatment, your chemotherapy plan may be changed.

For example, if a blood test shows that your blood count is low your doctor may decide to give you a longer rest period between cycles. Your doctor may reduce the dose of the drugs or you may be given medicine to boost your blood count.

If the test results show that the chemotherapy treatment isn’t working well enough, your doctor may change your treatment plan. Sometimes, different drugs may need to be tried to find out which ones are best for you.