Chemotherapy for breast cancer is one of the ways that healthcare providers treat the condition. If you’re having breast cancer surgery, you may receive chemotherapy before and after your surgery. You may receive more than one kind of chemotherapy drug. These drugs cause side effects, and your oncologist will help you to manage them.
Chemotherapy is a common treatment for breast cancer. It works by killing the cancerous cells in your breast or that have spread from your breast. Oncologists often use chemotherapy before and/or after breast cancer surgery. Your oncologist may use one kind of chemotherapy drug, combine drugs or use chemotherapy with other treatments.
Chemotherapy for breast cancer causes side effects, some of which may not develop until long after you’ve finished treatment. Your oncologist will have treatments and recommendations to help you manage immediate and short-term side effects. They’ll also share information about possible long-term side effects.
You may receive chemotherapy:
There are many types of chemotherapy drugs. Your oncologist may use one or more medications, depending on your situation.
For example, if you have adjuvant and neoadjuvant breast cancer chemotherapy, your provider may use one or more of the following types of chemotherapy:
If you have metastatic breast cancer, your provider may use one or more of the following drugs:
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Side effects vary based on what kind of drugs you take and how long you need to take them. Most go away once you finish treatment, but some persist weeks or months after treatment. The most common side effects are:
Other side effects may include:
You can take chemotherapy by mouth as a pill or as an injection or intravenous (IV) infusion that puts the drug into your veins. You may receive treatment at a hospital or infusion center. Often, healthcare providers use central venous catheters (CVCs) to deliver chemotherapy directly into your bloodstream. There are different CVC types:
That depends on your treatment plan. In general, chemotherapy for breast cancer lasts three to six months, but it can last up to a year. Here’s what you may expect:
Oncologists and pharmacists tailor chemotherapy to your situation. They consider breast cancer type and stage, test results and your body mass index (BMI) to decide the dosage amount. They’ll explain what chemotherapy they’ll use, and why, and discuss potential side effects.
This is a good time to ask your oncologist what you can do to get ready for treatment. If you’re like most people, you’ll have chemotherapy for several months. Many people can keep up with daily activities during treatment. Some people are exhausted and struggle with significant side effects. Everyone is different, so knowing what you can expect will help you plan for what’s ahead.
For example, your chemotherapy treatments may take a few hours during treatment days. You may want to:
Ask your oncologist about palliative care. Palliative care helps people manage cancer symptoms and treatment side effects. But more than that, it offers support and programs that you can tap as you go through chemotherapy for breast cancer and after you finish treatment.
When you arrive, a healthcare provider will show you where you’ll receive chemotherapy. That may be in a small cubicle or in a large room where other people are receiving treatment. Your provider will:
For example, if you had neoadjuvant chemotherapy, next steps may be surgery to remove the tumor and chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancerous cells. If surgery and post-surgery chemotherapy eliminated cancer symptoms and signs, your oncologist may schedule regular follow-up examinations and screening tests.
Chemotherapy, along with surgery, helps people with breast cancer live longer than people who don’t have chemotherapy. One analysis showed chemotherapy for breast cancer reduced recurrent breast cancer.
People with metastatic breast cancer may benefit from chemotherapy that eases their symptoms and helps them live longer.
Certain chemotherapy drugs may cause second or new cancers. Unlike metastatic breast cancer, second cancers are different cancers that can develop years after people complete chemotherapy. Second cancers linked to chemotherapy for breast cancer include:
Healthcare providers typically structure chemotherapy so your body has time to recover between treatments. While there are common chemotherapy side effects, you may find you recover more quickly or slower than you would expect. Talk to your oncologist about any side effects. They may recommend switching to different chemotherapy drugs.
You’ll see your oncologist regularly during treatment. Contact them or go to the emergency room if you have:
If you have breast cancer, one of your first questions may be, “Will I need chemotherapy?” Likely, the answer will be yes. Chemotherapy is a powerful anticancer treatment that kills cancerous cells and reduces the risk that breast cancer will come back. Powerful treatments can have challenging side effects. Chemotherapy for breast cancer is no exception. As you prepare for chemotherapy, try to remember no one expects you to power through treatment. If you’re feeling anxious, talk to your oncologist. They’ll be glad to explain steps they’ll take to ease side effects. They’ll also have suggestions for things you can do to make your treatment as easy as possible.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/18/2023.
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