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Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs can be given in different ways. Intravesical chemo, where the drug is put right inside the bladder, was described in the previous section.

Often chemo drugs are given into a vein or by mouth. Once the drugs enter the bloodstream, they spread throughout the body. This type of chemo can be used at different times:

  • Chemo might be used to shrink a large tumor so it is easier to remove during surgery. When used this way it is called neoadjuvant therapy
  • Chemo can be given after surgery or radiation to try to prevent the growth of stray cancer cells still in the body. This is called adjuvant therapy. It can lower the chance that the cancer will come back later.
  • Chemo is often the main treatment for advanced cancers, such as those that have spread to distant parts of the body.

Sometimes chemo is given along with radiation to help the radiation work better. This can increase the side effects of radiation.

Many chemo drugs can be used to treat bladder cancer. The drugs may be used alone or combined with other drugs, based on why they’re being used. Doctors give chemo in cycles, with each round of treatment followed by a rest period to give the body time to recover. Each chemo cycle typically lasts for a few weeks.

While chemo for bladder cancer can be hard to endure, especially for older patients who have other medical problems, older age itself doesn’t mean that you can’t get chemo.

Side effects of chemo

Chemo drugs kill cancer cells, but they also damage some normal cells, which can lead to side effects. These depend on the type of drugs used, the amount taken, and the length of treatment. Short-term side effects might include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Greater chance of infection (from a shortage of white blood cells)
  • Bleeding or bruising after minor cuts or injuries (from a shortage of blood platelets)
  • Tiredness (from low red blood cell counts, called anemia)

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

Most side effects go away over time when treatment ends. If you have any problems with side effects, be sure to tell your doctor or nurse, as there are often ways to help. To find out more about chemotherapy, please see the Chemotherapy section on our website, or our document A Guide to Chemotherapy.

Last Medical Review: 06/23/2014
Last Revised: 01/21/2016