As we begin to reopen Rush University Medical Center for elective procedures and in-person care, we are putting your safety first. For information about COVID-19, see the latest updates. Rush accepts donations to support our response effort, staff, and patients and families.

Excellence is just the beginning.


French German Italian Portuguese Russian


Chemotherapy, often shortened to chemo, uses drugs to destroy cancer cells or to slow down their growth. You may receive a single drug or a combination of drugs to treat your cancer.

Chemotherapy: what you should know

  • Chemotherapy is often given in cycles. The number of treatments in each cycle varies, as well as the number of cycles you will receive.
  • Chemotherapy is often combined with other therapies, such as biological therapy or hormonal therapy. Biological therapy uses your immune system to fight cancer. Hormonal therapy can make some cancers stop growing or slow down growth.
  • Chemotherapy may be combined with radiation therapy. This is called chemoradiation or radiochemotherapy.

Chemotherapy side effects

Chemotherapy attacks cells that divide quickly, a feature of cancer cells. The drugs cannot distinguish cancer cells from healthy ones, causing damage to healthy cells in the blood, mouth and bowel, for example, that divide quickly. While these cells will recover with time, side effects can occur during treatment. Medications can help minimize or prevent these side effects.

These are some common chemotherapy side effects:

  • Sore mouth (stomatitis)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Low blood cell counts, which can increase your risk for infection and anemia
  • Hair loss (alopecia)

Chemotherapy drugs

Chemotherapy drugs are grouped by how they work. Below are some of the main classes. Many chemotherapy treatments will combine drugs from different classes.

  • Alkylating agents like cyclophosphamide, also known as Cytoxan, prevent cells from reproducing. They are often used to treat breast cancer, blood cancers and bone cancer (sarcoma).
  • Anthracyclines, such as doxorubicin, damage proteins that cells need to reproduce. They are used to treat many cancers including ovarian cancer, lung cancer and blood cancers.
  • Antimetabolites, such as methotrexate and Xeloda, mimic nutrients that cells need to grow. Without proper nutrients, the cells cannot divide and eventually die. These drugs are commonly used to treat leukemia, breast cancer and colorectal cancer.
  • Plant alkaloids, such as vincristine and the taxanes (paclitaxel and docetaxel) attack cells while they are dividing. Vincristine is often used to treat blood cancers. The taxanes are used to treat breast cancer, lung cancer and ovarian cancer.
  • Topoisomerase inhibitors, such as irinotecan and etoposide, interfere with the proteins that cells need to divide. These drugs are often used to treat gastrointestinal cancer and lung cancer.

Why choose Rush for chemotherapy

  • Rush is the only medical center in Chicago that offers certain chemotherapy clinical trials. These trials offer you new options if your cancer has not responded to standard treatments or has relapsed.
  • You will receive treatment from nurses who have experience and in-depth knowledge of cancer care. Many of the nurses are certified in oncology. This is especially helpful if you experience side effects from your treatment or react to a medication during your infusion. 
  • During your treatment, you will have a primary nurse who works closely with you and your family.
  • The Rush University Cancer Center has 56 chemotherapy infusion stations, each with its own reclining chair and television. Family members can visit with you during treatment.
  • You can receive chemotherapy infusion services in Chicago or in the western suburbs. Rush offers cancer care in Lisle, in affiliation with DuPage Medical Group (DMG), and in Oak Park.
  • Rush offers integrative therapies like acupuncture and nutritional counseling to help ease side effects.