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How Effective is Chemotherapy?

Written by Regina Victoria Boyles, MD · Pediatrics

Updated Dec 23, 2022

How Effective is Chemotherapy?

The goal of chemotherapy is to kill cells that are growing rapidly in the body using powerful chemicals. 

All rapidly dividing cells in the body are targeted by chemotherapy, which reduces the growth rate of tumors. It is possible to combine chemotherapy with other treatments such as surgery, radiation, or immunotherapy.

How effective is chemotherapy depends on a lot of factors such as overall health and current medications. Age may also play a factor in how effective chemotherapy is.

How Chemotherapy Works

During cell division, two identical new cells are formed. Normal cells continue to divide by two until such time that they die. 

In cancer, cells don’t die and continue to multiply until a mass is formed. Eventually, this mass of cells develops into a lump known as a tumor.

Since cancer cells reproduce at a much faster pace than most normal cells, chemotherapy has a greater chance of killing them.

Chemotherapy drugs can damage the cells’ control center: the area responsible for cell division. Other chemotherapy drugs interrupt the chemical processes that initiate cell division thus causing the cancer cells to stop dividing. How effective is chemotherapy may depend on the specific drugs used for the treatment.

There are many types of drugs used in chemotherapy. There are times when your doctor may recommend using only one but in most cases, it is a combination of drugs. Using a combination of chemotherapy medicines in combination has proven to be more effective in how to prevent cancer recurrence.

A doctor will likely recommend a different combination of medicine if you’ve already had chemotherapy and the cancer returned or didn’t respond. 

It’s almost always possible to try another chemotherapy medicine if you aren’t getting any good results from one medicine or combination of medicines. 

For advanced cancer, doctors usually recommend only using one type of drug. This results in fewer side effects.

Types of Chemotherapy

Different types of chemotherapy work in different ways and how effective is chemotherapy may also differ. Regardless of effectiveness, the goal of most chemotherapies is to:

Target rapidly dividing cells and prevent them from spreading.

Alter the ability of cancer cells to reproduce or grow. 

Types of chemotherapy include:

  • Alkylating agents
  • Nitrosoureas
  • Anti-metabolites
  • Plant alkaloids and natural products
  • Anti-tumor antibiotics
  • Hormonal agents
  • Biological response modifiers

Why it’s done

Patients with cancer may undergo chemotherapy for different reasons:

Curative therapy

Using chemotherapy as the primary and only treatment for cancer. The goal of curative therapy is to let the cancer go into remission.

Adjuvant therapy

Adjuvant therapy is using chemotherapy in conjunction with other therapies such as radiation and surgery. To eliminate remaining cancer cells after surgery or other treatments, chemotherapy can be used. 

Neoadjuvant therapy

As a preparation for other treatments, chemotherapy, as well as radiation, can be used to shrink the tumor.  This is usually done if a patient undergoes surgery to remove the cancer. 

Palliative therapy

By killing some of the cancer cells, chemotherapy may alleviate cancer symptoms. The cancer is not cured by chemotherapy, but it shrinks tumors and lessens symptoms.

How Effective is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is effective. It has saved millions of lives and has put countless cancers into remission. However, how effective is chemotherapy  may depend on the person receiving the treatment. 

There are also a lot of cases wherein cancer has also already spread into the different parts of the body making it difficult to treat.

This is why it is important to know how to prevent cancer recurrence. Chemotherapy does not guarantee that you will not get cancer again. 

Chemotherapy is effective against cancer but it might not be a treatment that is available to everyone. There are cases when patients are not given chemotherapy because of their pre-existing conditions.

Chemotherapy is a strong and painful kind of therapy. People who undergo chemotherapy have to deal with debilitating side effects. 

Each person’s cancer treatment plan will be different, depending on a lot of factors. How effective is chemotherapy may depend on these factors:

  • The Cancer type and subtypes
  • How far the cancer has spread (Stage of Cancer)
  • Other pre-existing conditions
  • Test results from other screening procedures such as x-ray, MRI and CBC
  • The patient’s ability to recuperate from the treatment
  • Past cancer treatments
  • The age of the patient
  • Current medications
  • The overall health of the patient

Apart from chemotherapy, surgery and radiation are also used to treat cancer. The kind of treatment that a cancer patient will go through depends on the doctor’s assessment. Chemotherapy may not be the only sole solution to your cancer. Chemotherapy may be used to make surgery or radiation treatment more effective in fighting cancer. 

Key Takeaways

Chemotherapy is used as a treatment to fight cancer cells. This treatment may be used as the only treatment for cancer or it can also be used together with radiation and surgery.

Chemotherapy is effective against cancer but it does not guarantee that cancer will not return. Make sure to consult your doctor on how to prevent cancer recurrence. Different factors need to be considered before going through chemotherapy. Chemotherapy might not be a viable option for some patients. 

Learn more about cancer here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Written by

Regina Victoria Boyles, MD


Updated Dec 23, 2022

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