What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy uses medicines to kill cancer cells. It is often called “chemo” (pronounced KEE-mō).

Most of the medicines attack all fast-growing cells. Newer medicines target cancer cells more precisely, with less effect on other fast-growing cells.

Your child’s doctors may suggest chemotherapy:

  • As your child’s main treatment.
  • Before surgery or another treatment to help shrink a tumor.
  • After surgery or other treatment to kill any cells that remain. Treatment to lower the risk that cancer may spread or come back is called adjuvant therapy.

Chemotherapy is part of treatment for almost all childhood cancers. Our cancer doctors (oncologists) work closely with other specialists in the Cancer and Blood Disorders Center to give your child the right care.

Chemotherapy at Seattle Children's

How does chemotherapy work?

Most chemo medicines attack all fast-growing cells, including cancer cells. Newer medicines target cancer cells more precisely. This means less harm to healthy fast-growing cells and fewer side effects for your child.

  • Chemotherapy is almost always delivered to a child’s whole body (called systemic). The medicines go into the bloodstream and throughout your child’s body to kill cancer cells. Sometimes chemotherapy is put directly into the blood vessel that feeds the tumor. At Seattle Children’s we use this method to treat some children with retinoblastoma.

    The way your child gets chemo depends on:

    • The type of medicine (chemicals) used
    • The type of cancer
    • Where the tumor is

    Doctors may give your child medicine:

    • Through an IV line (catheter) placed under your child’s skin and into a blood vessel in their chest or arm. The IV line is left in place. This lets your child get chemotherapy without having to poke a vein in their arm over and over. This method is used most often.
    • Through a temporary IV line in your child’s hand or arm.
    • As a shot in the skin or muscle.
    • By mouth. It may be a pill or liquid.
    • As a shot into the spinal fluid. This is used to keep cancer from spreading to the brain and spinal cord. It also treats any cancer there.
    • Into an artery near a tumor. This method (intra-arterial infusion) delivers more medicine directly to the tumor. Seattle Children’s is the only hospital offering it for retinoblastoma in our 6-state region (Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming). Fewer than 10 centers in the United States have this option.

    The mix of medicines and how long they are given depend on your child’s cancer.

    Children receive chemotherapy at our hospital’s main campus in Seattle. Your child may be treated:

    It depends on the type of medicines your child needs.

  • Most drugs used in chemotherapy affect fast-growing cells in the body. These include cells that grow to become blood, hair and the lining of the mouth and intestines (mucous membrane).

    Damage to these cells may give your child side effects. They may have:

    • Hair loss
    • Mouth sores
    • Loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting
    • Diarrhea or constipation
    • Increased risk of infection (from lack of white blood cells)
    • Easy bleeding or bruising (from lack of blood platelets)
    • Tiredness (from lack of red blood cells)

    We watch your child carefully and adjust their treatment or supportive care based on how they are doing.

    Your team can help manage side effects your child might have. Your child’s team will talk to you about:

    • Possible side effects of your child’s specific medicine
    • Ways to help your child feel better

    Many side effects go away after treatment. Some chemotherapy drugs cause other side effects that may be long lasting.

    Our Cancer Survivor Program provides long-term follow-up care to help young people stay healthy after being treated for cancer in childhood.

Contact Us

Contact the Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at 206-987-2106 for an appointment, a second opinion or more information.

To make an appointment, you can call us directly or get a referral from your child’s primary care provider. We encourage you to coordinate with your pediatrician or family doctor when coming to Seattle Children's.

If you are a provider, see how to refer a patient.