How Long Does Chemotherapy Take?

Chemotherapy is a treatment that utilizes powerful chemical medications to kill cells that are rapidly growing in the body. Certain types of chemotherapy (or chemo) can be used to treat non-cancer conditions such as lupus, scleroderma, and rheumatoid arthritis.

However, chemo is typically reserved for cancer because cancer cells can multiply and grow much faster than other cells.

Many factors determine how long chemo will take, such as the type of cancer, how much it has progressed, and how a person responds to the treatment.

Read on to find out more about the length of time it takes to undergo chemotherapy.

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Types of Chemotherapy

There are several types of chemotherapy, and they are categorized by how they are given.

Oral Chemotherapy

Oral chemotherapy is when a person takes the medication by mouth. Like other medicines, oral chemotherapy can be given as pills, capsules, or liquids. People take their oral chemotherapy at home and have to follow a strict regimen to ensure that they are taking them properly.

Topical Chemotherapy

Topical chemotherapy includes ointments, gels, or creams. This is applied directly to an area of skin that has cancerous cells.

Intravenous Chemotherapy

Intravenous (IV) chemotherapy is administered directly into the bloodstream through a needle that is placed in a vein in the forearm or hand. The needle is attached to a plastic tube (catheter).

When the needle is removed, the catheter remains to allow the medication to continue to be administered.

Where Is Chemotherapy Done?

IV chemotherapy is typically done at a health center or hospital. The time it takes for treatment will depend on how it is given. People can take oral or topical chemo at home. Sometimes, IV chemo can also be given at home. 

Average Length of a Chemotherapy Session

The duration of chemotherapy treatment will vary depending on the type.

Injection

A chemotherapy session for injectable medication can take only a few minutes. It is done by injecting the chemo medication into a catheter using a syringe.

IV Infusion

The duration of an IV infusion chemotherapy treatment can range from a few minutes to a few hours. It is given as a continuous flow of chemotherapy medication from a bag that is attached to the catheter.

An IV pump is used to control the flow of medication going into the body, and the pump can slow or speed up the administration.

Continuous Infusion

A continuous infusion lasts from one to several days. The person getting this type of treatment will have to be hooked up to the medication the whole time they are getting the medication.

The flow of the chemotherapy into the body is controlled by an electronic IV pump to ensure that the optimal amount is being administered.

Factors Affecting Chemotherapy Cycle Length

Chemotherapy cycle length is determined by factors such as the stage and type of cancer, and which chemotherapy would suit the patient best based on the goals of their treatment.

The type of chemo that is used and their recovery times are factors that further determine the length of treatment.

Chemotherapy is also split into on and off cycles—periods where you have chemotherapy treatment, and the rest period between treatments.

If you are not getting chemotherapy treatment every day, you may have to undergo several cycles for three to six months.

Type of Cancer

No two cancers are the same, and people respond differently to treatments for them. For example, a person with skin cancer may not need the same type or length of chemotherapy as a person who has cancer of the liver.

Typically, more aggressive cancers will require more aggressive chemotherapy.

Stage of Cancer

Similar to the type of cancer, the stage (the extent of cancer within the body) also influences the duration or length of chemotherapy.

For example, stage 1 cancer is typically localized to one area, and stage 4 cancer has spread from where it started to other places in the body. The length of your chemotherapy will depend on what stage of cancer you have.

Type of Chemotherapy Used

The type of chemotherapy also determines how long you will have to undergo treatments. Most treatment cycles last anywhere from two to six weeks, however the type of chemotherapy is a deciding factor when it comes to the timeline.

Recovery Time Between Cycles

Between chemotherapy cycles, the body needs time to rest and heal from the damage that may have been done to healthy cells within the body by the treatment.

Recovery times can vary depending on the person and the type of chemotherapy they are receiving. The length of recovery time is also factored in to the overall length of chemotherapy treatment.

Why Do Recovery Times Vary?

If a person needs three weeks to recover, their treatment may last longer than a person who only requires one week. A typical course of chemotherapy will involve four to eight cycles of treatment.

Chemotherapy Response

How the body responds to the chemotherapy also plays a role in how long a person’s treatment will be.

Depending on the type of cancer, a person may need to continue with treatments for a limited time or indefinitely. If the cancer does not respond to chemotherapy, a person will need to have a different treatment.

Side effects are also part of the body’s response to chemotherapy. A certain level of toxicity from the treatment may mean a shorter course of treatment is needed.

How Long Does Chemo Stay in Your Body?

According to the American Cancer Society, the body breaks down most of the chemicals in chemotherapy roughly 48 to 72 hours after they have been administered.

However, different chemo medications are passed out of the body in various ways, and some are excreted faster or more slowly than others.

What Happens After Chemotherapy?

After chemotherapy treatment, you may feel especially sick as the medications are excreted from your body through urine, stools, and vomit. Make sure that any bodily fluids are away from others in your home.

How to Prepare for Chemotherapy

If you are getting chemotherapy, it helps to prepare and understand what side effects you might have—especially if you are receiving treatment in the hospital or a medical clinic where you won’t have access to all the comforts of home.

Pack a Go Bag

Taking a bag with things that can help you feel better during chemo (a “go bag”) can help make it easier to get through your treatment.

Examples of things you might add to your bag include:

  • Healthy snacks and water
  • Books, your tablet, or magazines to read
  • Your phone, laptop, or tablet
  • Comfort items such as warm socks, a sweater, or blanket in case you get cold
  • Any tools or objects that could help you relax if you are anxious
  • A journal to help you cope with your emotions
  • Headphones for listening to music or watching videos and movies
  • Crossword puzzles or coloring books to help distract your mind

Additionally, chemotherapy can cause dry, irritated skin and nausea. Lotion to keep your skin hydrated and ginger chews or tea to settle your stomach can also help.

If you are going to be staying in the hospital for several days, you may want to bring one or more changes of comfortable clothes and anything else that you may need while you’re there.

Why Should I Prepare for Treatment?

Being prepared for treatment can help lower any anxiety that you might feel about chemo, as well as make the time go faster and distract you from the side effects that you might experience.

What to Expect During Chemotherapy

Having your first chemotherapy treatment can be scary, but knowing what to expect can help lessen any anxiety you might be feeling.

Bringing a friend or family member with you can help because they can provide support and be an extra set of ears for information that is given to you by your providers about your treatments and side effects.

In some cases, you will also need a ride home because you might be given medications that can make you sleep during your treatment.

Once you have arrived at the place where you will receive your treatment, you may have to meet with your oncologist or other health professionals. They will check your vital signs, including your blood pressure, pulse, breathing, and temperature.

Your height and weight will also be taken to help make sure that the proper dose of chemotherapy is given to you.

Preparing for Side Effects

You may experience a range of side effects from chemotherapy, including:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Decreased appetite
  • Changes in taste
  • Hair loss
  • Dry mouth
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
  • Dry, red, and itchy skin
  • Fever
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Memory issues
  • Hearing loss or ringing in the ears

Not everyone will experience every single side effect of chemo, however it is important that you are prepared in case you do. If your doctor has prescribed you medications to manage the side effects, you should make sure you have them handy in case you need them.

Some side effects can go away quickly, while others may last for months—or even years—after your treatment. It’s important that you talk to your doctor about any side effects that you have. They can prepare you for them and help you manage them.

Coping With Side Effects

The side effects of chemotherapy treatment may feel worse than the symptoms that you have related to cancer, but it’s important to remember that these effects are only temporary and the benefits of chemotherapy far outweigh the downsides.

Summary

The length of time that it takes to undergo chemotherapy depends on several factors. The stage of your cancer, what type it is, and how you will be receiving chemotherapy all help determine how long you will need treatment.

In general, the amount of time that person has to undergo chemotherapy when it is used as an adjuvant treatment is roughly three to six months. If the cancer is metastatic, chemotherapy is often administered for longer. Since chemotherapy is broken into cycles, the entire timeline for your chemotherapy treatment will fall somewhere within a range.

Cycles typically last anywhere from two to six weeks. Individual sessions of chemotherapy can be over quickly (in a few seconds) if you are taking oral chemotherapy, but can last hours or even days if you are undergoing IV chemotherapy.

The important thing to remember about the length of chemotherapy is that however long it takes, it is crucial for your health. Your doctor will go over your specific needs and chemotherapy timeline. 

A Word from Verywell

The best thing that you can do while you are undergoing chemotherapy is to know what to expect and keep in mind that the treatment is necessary to improve your cancer outcomes. The treatment is designed to improve your quality of life or even save your life.

Being prepared for the duration, type, and side effects of chemotherapy will make the process easier and help you feel more empowered during your treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How many times a week will I have chemo?

    The number of times that a person has chemotherapy per week will vary. In some cases, you may have to have treatments several days a week with a period of rest between each cycle. If you are taking oral chemotherapy, you may have to take your medication every day for a while. The number of days that you will undergo chemotherapy will vary depending on your treatment needs.

  • How long will my first chemo treatment take?

    The first chemotherapy treatment duration will not be the same for everyone. With IV chemotherapy, sessions can last anywhere from 15 minutes to eight hours. In some cases, IV chemotherapy can last up to four days in the hospital.

  • How many rounds of chemo is normal?

    Each person and each cancer is different; therefore, a varying number of rounds of chemotherapy might be necessary.

    According to Cancer Research UK, a typical four-week cycle has a person undergoing three rounds of chemo before taking time to recover before the next cycle.

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11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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