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Treatment of breast cancer – chemotherapy

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Chemotherapy (or chemo) is the use of special medicines to fight breast cancer and doctors often use it in coordination with other types of treatment.

Cancer cells have specific characteristics that cause them to grow very quickly. This high growth rate can cause some of the cells to separate from the original location of the cancer and spread into other parts of the body.

Chemotherapy drugs target cells that are growing rapidly. The drugs destroy the cancer cells or stop them from dividing whether in the breast area or in other parts of the body. Chemotherapy treats the whole body, not just the breast area.

The medicines cannot distinguish between rapidly growing cancer cells and normal cells that happen to grow and divide rapidly. 

Chemotherapy drugs can affect cells in hair follicles, nails, bone marrow and others. Hair loss and other complications are often side effects of chemotherapy treatment.

Your doctor may prescribe chemotherapy following surgery to destroy any cells missed in the surgery and to help reduce the risk of recurrence. Your surgeon may also use chemotherapy before surgery to reduce the size of the tumor.

Often doctors prescribe a combination of two or more chemotherapy drugs. When used in combinations, health care providers refer to a chemotherapy regimen.

Chemotherapy regimens lower the risk of cancer returning in early stage breast cancer and can reduce or erase the cancer in many advanced cases. However, every breast cancer responds differently, so results will vary.

Your doctor will recommend the best chemotherapy regimen for your cancer. The drugs are delivered intravenously, by injection or by pill. In all cases, your doctor will prepare you for the treatment and discuss possible side effects.

​​​​Chemotherapy side effects

Chemotherapy is powerful medicine to combat breast cancer. The drugs target cancer cells, however they can also attack healthy cells that are also fast growing.

The healthy cells will eventually repair themselves while cancer cells lack the same capacity to easily repair. So, while chemotherapy can be an effective breast cancer treatment it also may come with a variety of side effects.

Different chemotherapy regimens produce different side effects. Side effects depend on:

  • Drugs used
  • General health
  • Length of treatment

It is important to remember that you may respond differently to the same drug as another patient who is on the same treatment plan.

Your doctor can help you prepare for anticipated side effects of the chemotherapy regimen. Medications can lessen the severity of side effects in many cases making treatment more bearable.

While the side effects of chemotherapy may be unpleasant, the treatment is considered crucial in most breast cancer cases. Marshfield Clinic's cancer team has detailed information on common side effects from treatment.

Timing of chemotherapy

Your doctor will determine how frequently you receive chemotherapy. Schedules for chemotherapy depend on treatment goals, how well you tolerate the medicine and other factors.

Chemotherapy is often scheduled in cycles. For example, your doctor may schedule treatment the first day of a cycle followed by several weeks of rest to allow your body to recover and rebuild healthy cells. The process from beginning of treatment through the rest period is one cycle of treatment. Your doctor may recommend a chemotherapy cycle that is shorter or more intense depending on your circumstances.

The cycle may change depending on your general health, side effects and other factors.

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