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How chemotherapy works

Treatment targets DNA of fast-dividing cells

Last Updated: April 24, 2013

The use of chemotherapy as a cancer treatment has its roots in chemical warfare. During the Second World War, military doctors discovered that personnel who had been exposed to mustard gas experienced mutation in their cells. Over the course of the next several decades, scientists worked to find and test combinations of drugs that target cancerous cells, preventing them from dividing.

"In some ways," Cancer Research UK says, "chemotherapy is rather like taking a sledgehammer to crack a hazelnut." The treatment affects healthy cells as well as cancerous ones, and can have a range of side effects.

This is a look at how chemotherapy works.

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