+ -Text Size

Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of drugs to treat cancer. Some drugs can be swallowed in pill form, while others need to be put into a vein or muscle. Once the drugs enter the bloodstream, they spread throughout the body to reach and destroy the cancer cells. For anal cancer, chemo can be given:

  • Along with radiation therapy (known as chemoradiation) as the first treatment for most anal cancers. This can often cure the cancer without the need for surgery.
  • Along with radiation after surgery to try to destroy any cancer cells that were left behind because they were too small to see. This can lower the chance of the cancer coming back.
  • If anal cancer has spread to distant parts of the body, such as the liver or lungs. This can help keep the cancer under control or relieve symptoms it is causing.

Often 2 or more drugs are used together because one drug can boost the power of the other.

Side effects of chemo

Chemo drugs kill cancer cells, but they also damage some normal cells, causing side effects. These depend on the type of drug, how much you get, and how long you take it. Common side effects of chemotherapy can include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hair loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Mouth sores
  • Easy bruising (from a shortage of blood platelets)
  • Feeling very tired or short of breath (from a shortage of red blood cells)
  • Increased chance of infection (from a shortage of white blood cells)

Some chemo drugs can cause other, less common side effects. For example, some drugs can damage nerves. This can lead to problems with numbness, tingling, or pain in the hands and feet.

Most side effects go away when treatment is over. Talk with your doctor or nurse about side effects, as there are often ways to help. To learn more, see our document A Guide to Chemotherapy.

Last Medical Review: 06/10/2014
Last Revised: 01/20/2016