Chemotherapy (often abbreviated to chemo and sometimes CTX or CTx) is a category of cancer treatment that uses one or more anti-cancer drugs (chemotherapeutic agents) as part of a standardized chemotherapy regimen. Chemotherapy may be given with a curative intent (which almost always involves combinations of drugs), or it may aim to prolong life or to reduce symptoms (palliative chemotherapy). Chemotherapy is one of the major categories of the medical discipline specifically devoted to pharmacotherapy for cancer, which is called medical oncology.
By common usage, the term chemotherapy has come to connote the use of rather non-specific intracellular poisons, especially related to inhibiting the process of cell division known as mitosis, and generally excludes agents that more selectively block extracellular growth signals (i.e. blockers of signal transduction). To avoid these connotations for recently developed (against specific molecular or genetic targets) therapies which inhibit of growth-promoting signals coming from classic endocrine hormones (primarily estrogens for breast cancer and androgens for prostate cancer) is known as hormonal therapy, while the inhibition of other growth-promoting influences (especially those associated with receptor tyrosine kinases) is known as targeted therapy.
Importantly, the use of drugs (whether chemotherapy, hormonal therapy or targeted therapy) constitutes systemic therapy for cancer in that they are introduced into the blood stream and are therefore in principle able to address cancer at any anatomic location in the body. Systemic therapy is often used in conjunction with other modalities that constitute local therapy (i.e. treatments whose efficacy is confined to the anatomic area where they are applied) for cancer such as radiation therapy, surgery or hyperthermia therapy.
Traditional chemotherapeutic agents are cytotoxic by means of interfering with cell division (mitosis) but cancer cells vary widely in their susceptibility to these agents. To a large extent, chemotherapy can be thought of as a way to damage or stress cells, which may then lead to cell death if apoptosis is initiated. Many of the side effects of chemotherapy can be traced to damage to normal cells that divide rapidly and are thus sensitive to anti-mitotic drugs: cells in the bone marrow, digestive tract and hair follicles. This results in the most common side-effects of chemotherapy: myelosuppression (decreased production of blood cells, hence also immunosuppression), mucositis (inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract), and alopecia (hair loss). Because of the effect on immune cells (especially lymphocytes), chemotherapy drugs often find use in a host of diseases that result from harmful overactivity of the immune system against self (so-called autoimmunity). These include rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, vasculitis and many others.