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Breast Cancer and Chemotherapy

In cancer treatment, chemotherapy refers to the use of drugs to kill or slow the growth of rapidly multiplying cells, like cancerous cells.

Chemotherapy usually includes a combination of drugs. However, the overall outcome of metastatic breast cancer (breast cancer that has spread to other organs of the body) is the same whether chemotherapy drugs are used alone or in combination. Ask a doctor for specific information and side effects that may be expected from  chemotherapy medications.


How Is Chemotherapy Given for Breast Cancer?

For breast cancer, chemotherapy drugs are given intravenously (IV) or orally (by mouth). Once the drugs enter the bloodstream, they travel to all parts of the body in order to reach cancer cells that may have spread beyond the breast. Chemotherapy is therefore considered a "systemic" form of breast cancer treatment.

Chemotherapy is given in cycles of treatment, followed by a recovery period. The number of cycles of treatments depends on many different factors, which you will need to discuss with your doctor. For some people, the treatment lasts months, and for others, the treatment may last years – especially if the treatment is working and the side effects are tolerable.


When Is Chemotherapy Given for Breast Cancer?

When breast cancer is limited to the breast or lymph nodes, chemotherapy may be given after a lumpectomy or mastectomy. This is known as adjuvant treatment and may help reduce the chance of breast cancer recurrence.

Chemotherapy may also be given as the main treatment when breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body, outside of the region of the breast and lymph nodes. This spread is known as metastatic breast cancer. Metastatic breast cancer may be present in a small number of women at the time of diagnosis, or occur at a later time, after initial treatment for localized (non-metastatic) breast cancer.

Chemotherapy may also be given before surgery to shrink a tumor. This is known as neo-adjuvant chemotherapy.


Can I Still Work During Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer?

Yes. Most people are able to continue working while they are being treated with chemotherapy for their breast cancer. It may be possible to schedule treatments later in the day, or right before the weekend, so they don't interfere with a work schedule. You may have to adjust your  work schedule while receiving chemotherapy, especially if there are uncomfortable side effects.

How Will I Know Chemotherapy Is Working?

Some people think that their chemotherapy treatment is not working if they do not experience side effects. This is just a myth.

If you are receiving adjuvant chemotherapy (after surgery that removed all of the known cancer), it is not possible for your doctor to directly determine whether the treatment is working, because there are no tumors left to assess. The only way to determine the effectiveness of adjuvant chemotherapy is over time. Studies have shown that adjuvant chemotherapy treatments are effective in some women.

After completing adjuvant therapy, your doctor will evaluate your progress through periodic physical exams, routine mammography, and appropriate testing if a new problem develops. If you are receiving chemotherapy for metastatic disease, progress will be monitored by blood tests, scans, and/or X-rays.

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