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Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Usually the drugs are given into a vein or by mouth as a pill. Once the drugs enter the blood, they spread throughout the body.

Chemo does not usually work as well for melanoma as it does for some other types of cancer, but it may relieve symptoms or help people with advanced disease live longer. Chemo is not often used as the first treatment since newer forms of immunotherapy and targeted drugs have become available.

Doctors give chemo in cycles, with each period of treatment followed by a pause for the body to rest. Each cycle usually lasts a few weeks.

Some chemo drugs are given alone, while others are often combined. Using chemo drugs with one or more immunotherapy drugs may work better than using just one drug, but it’s not clear if this helps people live longer.

Isolated limb perfusion is a type of chemo sometimes used for treating melanomas on an arm or leg. This treatment separates the blood flow of the limb with cancer from the rest of the body for a short time. High doses of chemo are then put into the limb. This allows high doses to be given to the area of the tumor without exposing the whole body to it, which would cause severe side effects.

Possible side effects of chemotherapy

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

  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Increased chance of infection (from having too few white blood cells)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding (from having too few blood platelets)
  • Tiredness (from having too few red blood cells)

Some chemo drugs can have other side effects. Most side effects go away once treatment is over. There are ways to lessen many of the side effects, so be sure to tell your doctor or nurse if you are having any of these problems.

For more about chemo, see the Chemotherapy section of our website, or A Guide to Chemotherapy.

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