Chemotherapy factsheet


Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses specific anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing.

Chemotherapy can also be used to:

  • shrink a tumour before surgery
  • kill any remaining cancer cells after surgery.

Some types of chemotherapy will use a combination of medications to increase effectiveness and reduce side effects.

Chemotherapy is commonly given intravenously. Intravenously means straight into a vein.

It can also be given by:

  • tablets or capsules that are swallowed
  • injecting into different parts of the body
  • creams that are put directly on the skin.

The type of chemotherapy used may be different for each child, depending on:

  • their health
  • their specific treatment
  • how advanced the cancer is 
  • whether the cancer has spread.

 Preparing for treatment

Before chemotherapy, your child will need to have some tests to make sure they are healthy enough for treatment.

These tests can include:

  • measuring weight and height to work out the correct medication dose  
  • blood tests to check how well the kidneys and liver are working  
  • x-rays and scans to check how the cancer is responding to the treatment
  • monitoring the heart
  • measuring their lung function. 

Your child’s treatment team will give you information about:

  • when and where to go for treatment
  • how long it will take
  • what to bring
  • how to prepare.

Children going through chemotherapy can prepare at home before treatment by:

  • getting plenty of sleep 
  • eating healthy food
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • washing their hands regularly
  • staying away from large crowds and people who are unwell
  • wearing a mask in crowded places.

Chemotherapy appointments can take time, so your child may want to pack a bag of things to keep them comfortable and entertained. This could include:

  • warm, comfy clothing
  • a big water bottle
  • snacks
  • lip balm
  • books
  • toys
  • headphones
  • a laptop or handheld device.

Check with your child's treatment team if you are unsure about how to prepare or what to bring.

 During treatment

During chemotherapy, your child will be:  

  • seated in a reclining chair in a room with other patients  
  • able to walk around the room and go to the toilet if they need to
  • given anti-nausea medicine so they don’t feel sick  
  • given water to drink to help flush the chemotherapy drugs through their system
  • checked on by the nurses and doctors regularly.

Side effects and pain

Chemotherapy should not be painful, but it can be uncomfortable due to:

  • placement of needles, tubes or devices in the vein to give medication 
  • blood tests
  • side effects from the chemotherapy drugs.

During chemotherapy, your child may have side effects like:

  • hair loss
  • nausea
  • mouth sores
  • anaemia – tiredness caused by low levels of healthy red blood cells
  • phlebitis – sore, inflamed veins.

These side effects should settle after the chemotherapy is finished.

Your child may also:

  • feel very tired
  • have trouble focusing
  • feel upset or emotional
  • feel generally unwell.

Your child’s treatment team can give support and information about managing side effects. This can include medications for side effects and emotional support.

Speak to your child’s treatment team about support for managing side effects and let them know as soon as possible if your child has any pain during treatment.

Length of treatment

The length of chemotherapy depends on the type of cancer your child is being treated for and the way it responds to treatment. 

Generally, chemotherapy takes 3-6 months. Your child will usually have several treatment cycles, with periods of rest in between to allow their normal cells to recover.

Maintenance chemotherapy to prevent cancer from coming back and palliative treatment to control the cancer may continue for months or years. 

Talk to your child’s treatment team if you are worried about how long the treatment is taking or the impact of side effects on your child.

 After treatment

Children with cancer will have regular checkups with their doctors after treatment is finished.

This is to monitor:

  • how your child is recovering from treatment
  • whether the chemotherapy worked
  • whether any further treatment is needed.

After the first few years, follow-up appointments will change to monitoring:

  • growth
  • development 

long-term or late side effects from chemotherapy. 


Long-term side effects of cancer treatment

The drugs used in chemotherapy are used to destroy fast-growing cancer cells. Normal or non-cancerous are also affected by the treatment.

Chemotherapy during childhood has a higher risk of long-term side effects, including:

  • slow growth and development
  • chronic health conditions
  • social and emotional problems from stress and trauma
  • infertility – not being able to have a baby when they are older.

Survivorship care aims to provide emotional support while identifying and managing any side effects as early as possible throughout your child’s life.

Speak to your child’s treatment team about survivorship clinics after treatment finishes.

When to see your doctor

Your child's treatment team will give you contact information for any questions or concerns about your child's health while at home between treatments. 

If your child has any of the following symptoms during treatment, call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance or go to the emergency department:

  • difficulty breathing 
  • convulsions or seizures
  • signs of infection
  • fever
  • looking extremely unwell. 

Support for families

A cancer diagnosis can leave families and children feeling overwhelmed, scared, anxious, and upset. Practical and emotional support during and after treatment is essential and can come from: 

  • family
  • friends
  • healthcare professionals
  • specialised support services.

Speak to your child’s treatment team for information about support services.

Resources and more information

Childhood Cancer Support

Childhood Cancer Support

Email Send email
Phone(07) 3844 5000
Keeps families together during their child's cancer treatment in a compassionate and supportive community environment.
Related Links
Children’s Cancer Institute

Children’s Cancer Institute

Phone1800 685 686
CCI is an Australian medical research institute wholly dedicated to curing childhood cancer. Their website offers information on childhood cancer and opportunities to volunteer, fundraise or donate to help support their work.
Related Links
Australian Government - Cancer Australia

Cancer Australia

Phone1800 624 973
A resource that lists information, advice and support organisations available to help you.
Related Links
Last updated Tuesday 19th March 2024


This factsheet is provided for general information only. It does not constitute health advice and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition.

Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you and/or your child.

The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network does not accept responsibility for inaccuracies or omissions, the interpretation of the information, or for success or appropriateness of any treatment described in the factsheet.

© Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 2024