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Chemotherapy, or chemo, is a type of drug that’s used to treat cancer. It works by stopping the division and growth of cancer cells.

Chemo is given in specific intervals, also known as cycles or schedules. The duration of one cycle depends on several factors, including the:

  • type of cancer
  • stage of cancer
  • type of chemotherapy used

These factors also determine the number of cycles and the entire duration of the treatment.

The total duration depends on other factors as well, including:

  • how long your body needs to recover between cycles
  • how long the effects of chemotherapy last
  • how your body responds to chemotherapy

To learn how long chemotherapy takes, read on. This article will cover the estimated duration of chemo, along with how to prepare for the actual treatment.

One course of chemo treatment may last between 3 to 6 months. Typically, one course consists of several on-and-off cycles. One cycle usually lasts 2 to 6 weeks.

Within each cycle, there are multiple treatment sessions. The sessions might take place once a day, week, or month. The duration of each session depends on its form.

Here’s how long different types of intravenous (IV) chemo take:

  • Injection. A syringe is used to deliver the drug in a few minutes.
  • IV infusion. The drug flows into your body over a period lasting several minutes to several hours.
  • Continuous infusion. A continuous infusion takes a day to several days.

Oral and topical chemotherapy are less time-consuming. That’s because they can be done at home on your own.

In oral chemo, you take the drug by mouth. The drug might be in the form of a:

  • liquid
  • pill
  • capsule

Topical chemo is an ointment or gel that you rub on your skin.

Chemotherapy infusions can last several hours or days. Your healthcare provider can let you know how long each session will likely take.

Here’s what you can do to feel more comfortable during each session:

  • Bring reading material. If you enjoy reading, pack a book or magazine to stay occupied. Consider choosing an inspirational topic to lift your spirits.
  • Pack a journal. Journaling can pass the time while easing stress and anxiety. A gratitude journal may also help you cope.
  • Bring music. Listening to your favorite songs or bands can give you a sense of comfort.
  • Pack a game. Bring a small game or puzzle to play during your treatment. You can also download digital games onto an electronic device.
  • Plan a creative project. Pass the time with knitting, drawing, or other artistic hobby.
  • Wear comfortable clothes. Since you’ll be sitting in the same area for a long time, wear loose-fitting clothing. Choose breathable, comfortable materials like cotton.
  • Bring a blanket and pillow. Hospitals and infusion centers are often chilly. If you want to stay warm or nap, bringing a blanket and pillow from home may help.
  • Pack a light snack. Ask your healthcare professional if you can eat during your session. If so, bring a small snack like yogurt or crackers in case you get hungry.
  • Bring a water bottle. It’s important to stay hydrated during treatment. However, it’s recommended to avoid acidic fluids, which might irritate your digestive system.
  • Include “comfort” items. If you need to spend an extended time in the hospital for your infusion, it might be nice to have some items that make you feel more at home. Consider bringing photos, favorite knick-knacks, and anything else that may make you feel more relaxed and supported.

Talk to your doctor about pre-treating symptoms

In some cases, doctors may prescribe medication to ease symptoms before they start. Before beginning your chemotherapy treatment, ask your doctor about possibly pre-treating symptoms you may be concerned about, such as nausea.

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Keep in mind that every treatment center is different. To prepare, ask your healthcare professional what amenities and services will be available.

As chemotherapy destroys cancer cells, it also harms healthy cells. This includes cells in your digestive system and hair, along with cells that produce blood.

In turn, chemo can cause various side effects. Some side effects go away quickly, while other side effects can last longer than the actual treatment. These effects can last months or years.

This means that chemotherapy can technically take much longer beyond the treatment itself. Here’s what you can do to prepare for these side effects in the long term:

  • Make accommodations at work. If you have a job, ask your boss if you can temporarily work fewer hours. It may also be helpful to work from home, if possible.
  • Arrange child care. If you have kids, coordinate child care with a babysitter or relative. Consider having backup options in case a sitter’s availability changes.
  • Plan home care. Ask a trusted relative or friend to help you with daily activities, like cleaning and grocery shopping. Make a list of important tasks that need to be done within the next few months.
  • Find a therapist. Receiving chemotherapy can be a stressful experience. Finding a therapist in advance may help you cope with the side effects.
  • Look for wigs. If you expect to lose hair during chemotherapy, you may choose to wear a wig. Before considering your options, ask your health insurance if they cover wigs.
  • Schedule follow-up appointments. Routine checkups are essential for effectively managing side effects. Try to book appointments in advance to ensure you contact your doctor in a timely fashion.

If you need financial assistance with these forms of care, organizations like Cancer Financial Assistance Coalition and CancerCare may help.

In general, chemotherapy can take about 3 to 6 months to complete. It may take more or less time, depending on the type of chemo and the stage of your condition. It’s also broken down into cycles, which last 2 to 6 weeks each.

These cycles are repeated in an “on-and-off” fashion to let your body rest between treatments. Each cycle consists of multiple sessions. One session can take a few minutes to several hours, depending on the form of chemo.

If you have questions about your treatment, talk with your healthcare professional. This will help you prepare and seek out the support you need.