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Systemic chemotherapy (chemo) uses drugs that are injected into a vein or given by mouth. These drugs travel through the bloodstream to all parts of the body. Unlike chemo that is put on the skin, systemic chemo can attack cancers that have spread to lymph nodes and other organs.

Systemic chemo can often slow the spread of squamous cell cancer and help relieve symptoms. In some cases, they may shrink tumors enough so that other treatments such as surgery or radiation can be used.

Chemo is not typically used to treat basal cell cancers. Advanced basal cell cancers are more likely to be treated with targeted therapy.

Possible side effects of chemotherapy

The side effects of chemo depend on the type and dose of drugs given and the length of time they are taken. These side effects may include:

  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Higher chance of infection (from having too few white blood cells)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding (from having too few blood platelets)
  • Feeling very tired all the time (from having too few red blood cells)

Most side effects usually go away once treatment is finished. Some drugs may have side effects that are not listed above. Be sure to ask someone on your cancer care team what you might expect.

Talk with your doctor or nurse about any side effects you have because there are often ways to help. For instance, drugs can be given to help prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting. To learn more about chemo, see the Chemotherapy section of our website.

Last Medical Review: 05/06/2015
Last Revised: 02/01/2016