Chemotherapy is a category of cancer treatment that uses chemical substances, especially one or more anti-cancer drugs (chemotherapeutic agents) that are given as part of a standardized chemotherapy regimen. Chemotherapy may be given with a curative intent, or it may aim to prolong life or to reduce symptoms (palliative chemotherapy). Along with hormonal therapy and targeted therapy, it is one of the major categories of medical oncology (pharmacotherapy for cancer). These modalities are often used in conjunction with other cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy, surgery, and/or hyperthermia therapy. Chemotherapy is also used to treat other conditions, including AL amyloidosis, ankylosing spondylitis, multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease, psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma.
Traditional chemotherapeutic agents are cytotoxic,
that is to say they act by killing cells that divide rapidly, one of
the main properties of most cancer cells. This means that chemotherapy
also harms cells that divide rapidly under normal circumstances: cells
in the bone marrow, digestive tract, and hair follicles. This results in the most common side-effects of chemotherapy: myelosuppression (decreased production of blood cells, hence also immunosuppression), mucositis (inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract), and alopecia (hair loss).
Some newer anticancer drugs (for example, various monoclonal antibodies)
are not indiscriminately cytotoxic, but rather target proteins that are
abnormally expressed in cancer cells and that are essential for their
growth. Such treatments are often referred to as targeted therapy
(as distinct from classic chemotherapy) and are often used alongside
traditional chemotherapeutic agents in antineoplastic treatment
Chemotherapy may use one drug at a time (single-agent chemotherapy)
or several drugs at once (combination chemotherapy or polychemotherapy).
The combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy is chemoradiotherapy. Chemotherapy using drugs that convert to cytotoxic activity only upon light exposure is called photochemotherapy or photodynamic therapy.