Breast cancer treatment: Do I need chemotherapy?

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Breast cancer treatment: Do I need chemotherapy?

Question

When is it reasonable for a woman being treated for breast cancer to skip chemotherapy?

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Answer

Breast cancer treatment often includes surgery followed by chemotherapy. But in some cases, chemotherapy may not be necessary. You and your doctor must decide which breast cancer treatment is right for you.

The decision to take chemotherapy after surgical removal of breast cancer is complex and highly individualized. Chemotherapy benefits many women — and men — with breast cancer. The key question is just how much benefit can it provide? This must be balanced against its side effects, which include hair loss, nausea and fatigue.

For those with evidence of a very high risk of cancer recurrence, the potential benefits of chemotherapy are substantial. For those at low risk of recurrence, chemotherapy is much less likely to offer benefits — while still causing the same side effects.

In addition, a person's general health must be factored into the decision. Those who are elderly or frail often experience more serious side effects from chemotherapy with little or no benefit. Many alternative treatments are also available, such as hormonal therapies.

For these reasons, it is critical to have your doctor explain in detail the benefits and side effects of chemotherapy in order to determine if chemotherapy is the right choice.

Last Updated: 06/01/2006
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