Systemic chemotherapy is when chemotherapy drugs travel throughout your body. This type of chemotherapy can be given intravenously or orally.

Chemotherapy, or “chemo,” is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to slow or stop the growth of cancer cells. When these cells can’t grow and divide effectively, they die.

There are different types of chemo. Some types of chemo act systemically on your entire body, while others act locally or regionally on smaller areas.

Below, we’ll go over what to know about systemic chemo and how it works.

In a systemic treatment, a drug travels throughout your body via your bloodstream. As such, systemic chemo not only affects cancer cells in the original tumor, but also cancer cells that have spread (metastasized) beyond the original tumor.

Systemic chemo is typically given directly into your bloodstream by being infused into a vein. This is called intravenous (IV) administration.

Many people who need IV chemo get their infusions through a port. A port is a small device implanted under your skin. It’s connected to a large vein by a tube. Having a port reduces the need for a needle puncture each time you have chemo treatment.

Systemic chemo can also be given orally in the form of a capsule or tablet that you take by mouth. The chemo drugs are absorbed in your stomach and then enter your bloodstream, where they can travel throughout your body.

Systemic chemotherapy targets fast-growing cells throughout the body

Cancer cells tend to grow and replicate faster than many other types of cells. When chemo drugs are used systemically, they target and destroy fast-growing cancer cells throughout your body.

But there are some other types of cells in your body, like some blood cells for instance, that also replicate at a faster rate. As a result, chemo drugs may destroy some healthy cells that aren’t cancer. This can cause side effects throughout your body that may be more severe than the side effects of chemotherapy that’s focused on just one area of your body.

In contrast to systemic chemo, which can target cancer cells throughout your body, regional chemo only affects cancer cells in specific areas.

When chemo is given regionally or locally, it can still act on cancer cells in the affected area. But in contrast to systemic chemo, regional chemo may cause milder overall side effects.

Some examples of different types of regional or local chemo and their uses include:

  • Intra-arterial chemo: With intra-arterial chemo, the chemo drugs are injected into an artery that supplies blood directly to the tumor. Some examples of cancers it may be used for are liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, and retinoblastoma.
  • Intrathecal chemo: Intrathecal chemo can be used to treat cancers of your brain or spinal cord, as many chemo drugs that are given systemically can’t cross the protective blood-brain barrier. This type of chemo is given directly into your cerebrospinal fluid.
  • Intracavity chemo: Intracavity chemo involves the placement of chemo drugs into a specific body cavity, such as:
    • Intrapleural chemo: Intrapleural chemo is given into the pleural space surrounding your lungs and may be used for lung cancers.
  • Intralesional chemo: Intralesional chemo involves the injection of chemo drugs directly into a tumor. It may be used for skin cancers or Kaposi sarcoma.
  • Topical chemo: Topical chemo is when chemo drugs are placed directly on your skin. This type of chemo is typically used for skin cancers.

Systemic chemo is typically given in cycles. A cycle is a period during which you receive chemo, followed by a period of rest. The rest period allows healthy cells in your body to recover from the effects of chemo.

An example of a cycle would be having chemo for a week, followed by 3 weeks of rest. After the rest period, you’d start another cycle. The number of chemo cycles you’ll need will depend on your individual treatment plan.

Systemic chemo can be used to:

  • destroy cancerous tumors and put cancer into remission
  • prevent the cancer from coming back
  • slow down the growth or spread of the cancer
  • ease symptoms associated with cancer

Systemic chemo may also be given with other types of cancer treatments. Some examples include:

Systemic chemo is when chemo drugs travel throughout your body, targeting cancer cells both at the original site and elsewhere in your body. It’s typically given by an IV line or orally.

Some types of chemo are given regionally or locally. This means that they only act in a specific area.

If systemic chemo is a part of your cancer treatment, talk with your care team about what to expect. They can give you an idea of how and where you’ll have your chemo, how many cycles are planned, and any side effects you may experience.