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Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. Most often the drugs are given into a vein (IV) or by mouth. Once the drugs enter the bloodstream, they spread throughout the body. This treatment is especially useful when cancer has spread beyond the ovaries.

The drugs can also be given right into the belly (abdomen). This puts the drugs in contact with the cancer cells yet still allows them to be absorbed to reach the rest of the body. This works well, but does have more severe side effects. This is called intraperitoneal (IP) chemotherapy.

Chemo is often a combination of 2 or more drugs, given in a cycle every 3- to 4-weeks. A cycle is a schedule where doses of a drug are followed by a rest period. Different drugs have different cycles. Your cancer doctor (oncologist) will prescribe the right cycle for your chemo. Most cancer doctors in the United States believe that using more than one drug works better in treating ovarian cancer than using one drug alone.

Side effects of chemo

While chemo drugs kill cancer cells, they also damage some normal cells, causing side effects. These side effects will depend on the type of drugs given, the amount taken, and how long treatment lasts. Short-term side effects might include the following:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hair loss
  • Hand and foot rashes
  • Mouth sores

Chemo can damage the cells of the bone marrow that make blood, so patients may have low blood cell counts. This can result in:

  • An increased chance of infection (from a shortage of white blood cells)
  • Bleeding or bruising after minor cuts (from a shortage of platelets)
  • Tiredness (from low red blood cell counts)

Most side effects go away when treatment ends. Hair grows back, although it might look different. Some side effects, such as menopause and infertility, can be permanent. Rarely, some cancer drugs may cause another cancer to develop. The small chance that this might happen should be weighed against the positive effects of treating the ovarian cancer. Anyone who has problems with side effects should talk with their doctor or nurse as there are often ways to help.

For more details about the chemo used for ovarian cancer, see Ovarian Cancer.

To learn more about chemo and its side effects, please see Chemotherapy on our website

Last Medical Review: 08/08/2014
Last Revised: 02/03/2016