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Breast Cancer Treatment With Chemotherapy

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Receiving Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer continued...

Adjuvant chemotherapy usually begins after recovery from surgery and before radiation treatment and lasts 3-6 months. You will be checked regularly to see how your body is tolerating the treatment. When the treatment is done adjunctly (meaning after surgery, but before any signs of recurrent cancer), there is no way to know for sure if the treatment is working. When chemotherapy is used for metastatic disease (tumor spread), scans may be done to see what effect the treatment is having on the cancer.

During chemotherapy treatment, you will have regular blood tests. Doctors check to see if you have enough white blood cells (infection-fighting cells), red blood cells (which carry oxygen to the cells in your body), and platelets (which help your blood clot). If your red or white cell counts are low, injections can be given to speed recovery. If platelets are low, then a blood transfusion may be necessary. Chemotherapy may be postponed until white blood cells or platelet counts rise towards the normal range.

Unlike other types of cancer, breast cancer treatment with high-dose chemotherapy and bone marrow or stem cell transplants has not been shown to improve survival.

Side Effects of Breast Cancer Chemotherapy

Breast cancer chemotherapy and radiation therapy destroy constantly dividing cancer cells. But they also may affect healthy cells. Medicines used with self-help methods can help ease many of these side effects. It is important to tell your doctor if you are having any problems with these or other side effects not listed:

  • Nausea and vomiting, either the day of treatment, or more commonly, several days after treatment. Nausea on the day of treatment is usually well-controlled, but delayed nausea is harder to manage.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Fatigue.
  • Mouth soreness.
  • Hair loss. Whether the hair falls out all at once, gradually, or not at all depends on what drugs are given.
  • Weight gain.
  • Premature menopause. If you are planning to have children, you should discuss this with your doctor before starting chemotherapy, as there may be ways to prevent your periods from stopping or to save ovary tissue.
  • Lowered resistance to infections. Many chemotherapy drugs lower the white blood cell counts in the week or so after treatment. If the blood counts are very low, then an infection can be dangerous.
  • Increased bleeding. Many chemotherapy drugs also lower the platelet counts. Platelets are the body’s first line of defense in blood clotting. If the platelet counts are very low, little red spots start to appear on the body. You may bruise or bleed easily, even without any trauma. If this occurs, your doctor needs to be informed.

For more information about these side effects, see Side Effects of Cancer Drugs and Radiation.

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