There are currently more than 100 types of chemotherapy drugs on the market. Ingredients vary widely and generally include either chemical, plant, or synthetic components.

Chemotherapy refers to medications that are commonly used to treat cancer. They may be used alone or in combination with other treatments.

There are currently more than 100 types of chemotherapy drugs on the market. The type of chemotherapy a person receives depends on several factors, including:

  • the type, location, and stage of the condition being treated
  • the goal of the treatment
  • the health and medical history of the person receiving the chemotherapy

Because there are so many different types of cancer, scientists are constantly looking for treatments to effectively target specific cancer types. This has led to an increase in cancer survival rates, as well as chemotherapy options.

This article reviews what we know about chemotherapy, including what it does, what it’s made of, and how it works.

Chemotherapy drugs are grouped by their chemical structure. These groups allow doctors to make informed decisions on which drugs will work best together to manage and remove cancerous cells.

The primary types of chemotherapy drugs are:

DrugHow they workSide effects
Alkylating agentsdamages cell DNA and prevents it from making copies of itselfcan cause leukemia
Antimetabolites interferes with cell DNA by acting as a substitute for DNA and RNA building blocks and prevents it from making copies of itselfcan cause liver damage
Antitumor antibioticsinterferes with enzymes that copy DNA during the cell cycle and bind with DNA, which prevents the cell from copying itselfcan damage the heart
Mitotic inhibitorsdamages enzymes that make proteins that are needed for cell reproductioncan cause nerve damage
Steroids (corticosteroids)reduces the body’s immune response, helps mitigate pain, and manages side effects and symptoms of other chemotherapies when used togethercan prevent nausea, vomiting and severe allergies
Topoisomerase inhibitorsinterferes with enzymes that allow the DNA to be copied, preventing the cell from copying itselfcan increase the risk of a secondary cancer

Ingredients for chemotherapy treatments vary widely and generally include either chemical, plant, or synthetic ingredients:

The way chemotherapy works depends on the type of chemotherapy administered. Not all chemotherapy treatments work the same way.

Chemotherapy medications may be given intravenously (via intravenous [IV] infusion), orally, or topically.

Traditional chemotherapy is the most common type of chemotherapy. It works throughout your body, so it’s called a “systemic” treatment.

Chemotherapy medications target cells that are cancerous or that are growing too fast and spreading to new parts of your body. They aim to eliminate the cancer cells but can’t distinguish between healthy and sick cells. This means the chemotherapy often ends up killing healthy cells, as well.

In all cases, chemotherapy either damages your cells or interferes with cell production by making changes to them on a DNA or RNA level.

The ingredients for many chemotherapy drugs work in your body by reducing or removing cell function.

In traditional chemotherapy, both healthy and sick cells are targeted, which can leave your body vulnerable to protection. In other forms of chemotherapy, there are additional physical side effects from treatment.

The most toxic forms of chemotherapy, which can lead to irreversible toxicity, include alkylating agents, topoisomerase inhibitors, and antimetabolites.

Some of the more common side effects of chemotherapy can include:

Some of the potentially rare side effects of chemotherapy may include:

  • secondary cancer
  • heart damage
  • nerve damage
  • liver damage
  • severe allergies

When administering chemotherapy, doctors take safety precautions to ensure that your side effects are limited.

This may include having you wear specific types of clothing or other protective equipment. You may need to wear gloves while taking oral administrations. Steps may also need to be taken to lower the chance that others come into contact with the chemotherapy. This includes:

  • cleaning laundry that has bodily fluids on it
  • flushing toilets twice
  • keeping living areas clean

Though treatments for cancer have improved significantly over the last decade, there’s still much to learn about chemotherapy and how it affects a person receiving this type of treatment.

The type and dosage of chemotherapy assigned to a person is based on several factors, including the health and history of the person and the type and stage of cancer.

To make the process of prescribing chemotherapy easier, doctors have grouped chemotherapy options according to their properties. This allows them to make more personalized and customized chemotherapy regimens that will be more effective for treating someone’s cancer.

Despite the side effects that happen with most types of chemotherapy, mortality rates for people with certain types of cancer have noticeably reduced. Ongoing research will continue to find more effective forms of chemotherapy for all types of cancer.