Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer

Chemotherapy refers to the treatment of cancer with drugs that kill the cancer cells. Such drugs are given either intravenously or orally from where the drug enters into the blood stream and travels to reach the targeted cancer cells in the body. It is administered in cycles, with a recovery period following each treatment period. Chemotherapy is usually given for several months. It can be used before and after surgery, however, there are also many side effects of chemotherapy for breast cancer.

When Is Chemotherapy Used?

Chemotherapy is recommended in the following situations:

1. After Surgery

Chemotherapy is usually given as adjuvant therapy after surgery to kill the undetected cancer cells that may have travelled from the primary breast tumor to other parts of the body. This helps in reducing the risk of recurrence of breast cancer.

2. Before Surgery

Chemotherapy is also given before surgical treatment when it is referred to as neoadjuvant therapy. The benefit of giving chemo before surgery is to shrink large tumors so as to make them small enough to be removed by surgery. There is no major difference in terms of survival rates between providing chemo before and after surgery. Giving chemo before surgery also makes the physician aware of the response of the cancer to the drugs.

3. For Advanced Breast Cancer

Chemotherapy is also the treatment of choice in cases of advanced breast cancer, which has spread outside the breast and to the underarm area. This is done either during the initial diagnosis of cancer or for a recurrent cancer.

How is Chemotherapy Given?

  • Intravenously (IV). Chemo is given through the intravenous route by inserting a thin needle into a vein of your hand or lower arm.
  • Injection. Chemo can also be given as an intramuscular injection or shot into your arm, leg or hip.
  • Orally. It can be ingested orally as a capsule or a pill.
  • Through a port. Chemo can be given through a port that is surgically inserted in the area of your chest.
  • Through a catheter. Chemo can be administered through a catheter that is inserted into a large vein of your body by performing a short, outpatient surgery.

What Are the Side Effects of Chemotherapy?

The various side effects of chemotherapy are as follows:

1. Common Side Effects

Common possible side effects include:

  • Hair loss
  • Low blood cell counts
  • Mouth sores
  • Increased appetite or loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting

2. Menstrual Changes

A common side effect of chemo in younger females is menstrual changes in the form of premature menopause and infertility.

3. Neuropathy

Nerves can be damaged by chemotherapy leading to symptoms of numbness, pain, tingling and burning sensation, weakness and sensitivity to heat and cold.

4. Heart Damage

Some chemo drugs when used for a long period of time can damage heart permanently leading to cardiomyopathy.

5. Fatigue and Discomfort

Chemotherapy is often associated with symptoms of generalized fatigue and discomfort, which can continue for many years. There may be mild loss of physical functioning as well with feeling of body pain and achiness.

6. Increased Risk of Leukemia

A very rare side effect of chemo is that they may damage the bone marrow permanently, increasing the risk of leukemia in patient undergoing chemo.

7. Other Side Effects

  • The decreased blood count leads to increasing the risk of infections, easy bruising and bleeding, and fatigue.
  • Some of the drugs may cause irritation of palms and soles leading to symptoms of tingling, numbness and redness. This is known as hand-foot syndrome.
  • You may develop a side effect known as chemo brain which is characterized by slightly reduced mental functioning.
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