Chemotherapy for breast cancer
Chemotherapy for breast cancer
Chemotherapy for breast cancer uses powerful drugs to target and destroy fast-growing breast cancer cells. Chemotherapy for breast cancer is frequently used along with other treatments for breast cancer, such as surgery. But chemotherapy for breast cancer also may be used as the primary treatment, when surgery isn't an option.
Various chemotherapy drugs are available to treat breast cancer. Breast cancer chemotherapy drugs may be used individually or in combination to increase the effectiveness of the treatment.
Chemotherapy for breast cancer can help you live longer and reduce your chances of having the cancer come back (recur). But chemotherapy for breast cancer also carries a risk of side effects — some temporary and mild, others more serious or permanent. Your doctor can help you decide whether chemotherapy for breast cancer is a good choice for you.
Why it's done
Chemotherapy for breast cancer may be given in the following situations:
Chemotherapy after surgery for early breast cancer
Your doctor may recommend adjuvant chemotherapy if you have a high risk of the cancer recurring or spreading to other parts of your body (metastasizing), even if there is no evidence of any cancer left after surgery. You may be at higher risk of metastasis if cancer cells are found in lymph nodes near the breast with the tumor. It's important to talk to your doctor about how much the chemotherapy will reduce your chance of the cancer coming back, and whether this decrease in risk is worth the side effects of the chemotherapy. Also discuss with your doctor other possible alternatives, such as hormone-blocking therapy, that might be effective in your situation.
Chemotherapy before surgery for early breast cancer
Chemotherapy as the primary treatment for advanced breast cancer
Each woman's experience with chemotherapy's side effects is different, partly due to differences among drugs and dosages and partly due to the body's unique reaction to these medicines. Most side effects are temporary and subside once treatment is finished. But in some cases, chemotherapy can have long-term or even permanent effects.
Short-term side effects
Various drugs may be used to help reduce nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. In addition, doctors can sometimes adjust the dose or schedule of the chemotherapy drugs to minimize side effects. If chemotherapy has damaged your infection-fighting blood cells, a doctor may adjust your doses of chemotherapy or may add medications that help your bone marrow to recover more quickly. Most side effects don't last long.
Long-term side effects
Other side effects
How you prepare
You and your doctor may go through several steps in preparation for chemotherapy.
Assess the potential benefit of chemotherapy
Take steps to improve your overall health
Plan ahead for side effects
Make arrangements for help at home and at work
Tell your doctor about any drugs or supplements you're taking
The day of treatment
What you can expect
Timing and frequency of chemotherapy sessions
In some cases, you and your doctor may choose cycles of chemotherapy that are closer together, such as every two weeks (dose-dense chemotherapy) rather than three. This may decrease the risk of recurrence, but it can also lead to more intense side effects.
Adjuvant chemotherapy is usually started two to six weeks after surgery.
Common drug combinations
Where chemotherapy is given
How chemotherapy is given
A typical chemotherapy session
After a chemotherapy session
Some women feel fine after a chemotherapy session and can return to their regular schedules, but others may feel side effects more quickly. You may want to arrange for someone to drive you home afterward, at least for the first few sessions, until you see how you feel afterward.
During the course of chemotherapy
Following your treatment plan closely is the best way to get the most benefit from your chemotherapy. If side effects become too bothersome, discuss them with your doctor. It's likely he or she will be able to adjust the dose or type of chemotherapy medication you're receiving or prescribe other medications to help minimize side effects.
After you complete your chemotherapy treatment, your doctor will schedule follow-up visits — usually every four to six months at first and then less frequently the longer you remain cancer-free. This will be done to monitor you for long-term side effects and to check for recurrence of the breast cancer. Tests and procedures during follow-up care include:
Tests such as tumor marker tests, liver function tests, bone scans and chest X-rays generally aren't recommended unless there is a specific need. Additional imaging tests are typically needed only when a recurrence is suspected.
Last Updated: 2010-10-23
© 1998-2013 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. A single copy of these materials may be reprinted for noncommercial personal use only. "Mayo," "Mayo Clinic," "MayoClinic.com," "Mayo Clinic Health Information," "Reliable information for a healthier life" and the triple-shield Mayo logo are trademarks of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
Terms and conditions of use