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Chemotherapy IV drip hanging on a pole in hospital.Chemotherapy, or the use of chemical agents to destroy cancer cells, is one of the main forms of cancer treatment today. During chemotherapy, cancer fighting medication is administered to the patient orally, intravenously or directly into the tumor using a catheter. A benefit of chemotherapy is that it has the ability to destroy cancer cells that may have spread to other parts of the body.

Chemotherapy is typically administered in cycles with treatments lasting from three to six months. This approach destroys tumor cells while giving the patient's body time to recover. The use of chemotherapy varies from patient to patient and can include any of the following:

Combination chemotherapy

Combination chemotherapy combines agents with different anticancer actions. This helps to reduce side effects and maximize the therapeutic effect. Also, since cancer cells can become resistant to chemotherapy medications, using different drugs can reduce resistance and result in an improved treatment outcome.

Adjuvant chemotherapy

Adjuvant chemotherapy is administered after surgery to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence.

Neoadjuvant chemotherapy

Neoadjuvant chemotherapy is given before surgery. It shrinks the tumor, enabling the surgeon to perform a less invasive procedure and may provide a better chance that the entire visible tumor will be removed during surgery.

Combined modality chemotherapy

Combined modality chemotherapy is used along with surgery or radiation therapy. These combined approaches increase the likelihood of treatment success. Today most patients are treated using a combined approach.

Chemotherapy and Side Effects

Common side effects associated with chemotherapy include hair loss, skin changes, nausea, diarrhea and appetite changes. Patients are also closely monitored for low white blood counts, platelet counts, and hemoglobin levels as these can all be affected by chemotherapy.

Monitoring Patient Health During Chemotherapy

Since chemotherapy affects the blood cells, patients are carefully monitored during treatment. Blood studies include:

White blood count (WBC)

White blood cells help to fight infection. A normal WBC falls between 4,000-11,000 in adults. A low white blood cell count, known as neutropenia, means that the patient's immune system is not as strong as it could be, causing the patient to be more susceptible to infection.

Platelet count

Platelets are blood cells that help the blood to clot, preventing potentially serious bleeding when an injury occurs. The normal adult platelet count is 150,000-300,000. A low platelet count known as thrombocytopenia, places patients at risk of bleeding.


This is the part of the red blood cell that carries oxygen to the tissues. Normal levels are 12-16 for adult females and 14-18 for adult males. Low levels of hemoglobin can cause fatigue, chest pressure or breathing difficulties. Any of these symptoms should be reported to the Drexel Cancer Care team.

When patients have an extremely low count for any of these studies, the Drexel Cancer Care physician may delay further chemotherapy or reduce the dosage to give the patient's body a chance to produce additional blood cells.

The information on these pages is provided for general information only and should not be used for diagnosis or treatment, or as a substitute for consultation with a physician or health care professional. If you have specific questions or concerns about your health, you should consult your health care professional.

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