Anti-cancer drugs | Chris O'Brien Lifehouse

Anti-cancer drugs: chemotherapy, hormonal & targeted therapies

Chemotherapy, hormonal and targeted therapies

There are more than a hundred different drugs used in the treatment of cancer, and these fall into three main groups – cytotoxic drugs, hormonal treatments and targeted therapies:

Cytotoxic drugs

Cytotoxic drugs

Many of these drugs have been around for over 50 years and are what most of us think of as ‘chemotherapy’. All the cells in our body divide to produce new cells so that the tissues and organs in our body can grow and repair. Cancer cells divide without control. Because cytotoxic drugs or chemotherapy interfere with the process of cell division, normal cells as well as cancer cells are affected. As a result, they often cause side effects.

The drugs are usually given as a liquid through a drip into a vein (intravenously), so that they can circulate in the bloodstream and reach the cancer cells wherever they are in the body. Some types are taken as tablets or capsules.

Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles of treatment. The drug (or drugs) is given and then followed by a few weeks of rest, so that the body can recover from the effects of the treatment. Intravenous chemotherapy may take minutes, hours or a few days. Usually 4-6 cycles of treatment are given, which takes from 4-8 months. Some treatments for particular types of cancer last much longer than this, others may be shorter.

Sometimes a drug is given continuously into the vein by a small portable pump over the course of a few months. This is known as a continuous infusion. Some chemotherapy treatments are given as tablets or capsules to take at home.

Cytotoxic chemotherapy affects people in different ways. Some people find that they can’t work at all. Others find they can keep working or that they just need to take a few days off after their treatment and can then work until their next treatment.

Why have chemotherapy?

You can have chemotherapy for several reasons:


Some cancers can be cured by chemotherapy alone or combined with other treatments, such as surgery and radiotherapy.


Chemotherapy can be given either before or after the other treatments. When given before, the drugs are used to make the cancer small so other treatment can be more effective. When given after the other treatment, chemotherapy is used to kill any leftover cancer cells that may cause problems later.


This treatment aims for relief of symptoms. It is particularly important for people who cannot be cured but want to maintain their quality of life. For example chemotherapy may be used to relieve pain caused by cancer or to stop the spread of cancer into an organ.

Side effects

Cyotoxic chemotherapy can cause unpleasant side effects. It can temporarily stop your bone marrow from making new blood cells. This means your immunity is reduced and you’re more prone to infections. You may also become anaemic (when the number of red blood cells in your blood is low) or have bleeding problems, such as nose bleeds or bruising easily.

If your bone marrow is not working properly you may need to take antibiotics to treat infection, or have a blood transfusion if you are anaemic. You will have regular blood tests between courses of treatment to monitor the effects.

Other common side effects include tiredness and weakness, feeling sick, a sore mouth, hair loss, diarrhoea or constipation, and numbness and tingling of the hands and feet. Your side effects will be closely monitored whilst you are on treatment. Medicines can be given to control some of these effects. Complementary therapies such as acupuncture , oncology massage and reflexology can also help reduce some of these side effects as well as improving your quality of life whilst you undergo treatment. The side effects will gradually disappear once the treatment has finished.

For information on how complementary therapies can help you manage your symptoms and side effects, visit our LivingRoom page.

Hormonal therapies

Certain cancers such as breast, prostate and endometrial cancer can be hormone-sensitive. Hormonal therapies are drugs that can stop or slow the growth of cancer cells by either changing the level of particular hormones in the body, or preventing the hormones affecting the cancer cells. Most hormonal therapies are given as tablets, but some are given as injections every few weeks or months.

Side effects

Hormonal therapies can cause side effects such as weight gain, hot flushes, sweats, tiredness, and lowered sex drive. These treatments are usually given for months or years and they usually have less of an effect on your ability to work than other cancer treatments.

For information on how complementary therapies can help you manage your symptoms and side effects, visit our LivingRoom.

Targeted therapies

These are a newer group of treatments that work by targeting the growth of cancer cells. They generally have little effect on normal cell growth, so they usually have less troublesome side effects than cytotoxic drugs. Targeted therapies are generally used in combination with chemotherapy. They may be given as a drip (intravenous infusion) or as tablets.

Side effects

Possible side effects include flu-like symptoms, chills, headaches, a temperature, low resistance to infection and tiredness (fatigue). Some treatments may also cause sickness and diarrhoea. Many people are able to carry on working while taking these drugs, but tiredness and other side effects may sometimes make this difficult.

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