Breast Cancer Treatment With Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses medicine to kill cancer cells. With breast cancer, it has three major purposes:

  1. To prevent cancer from coming back after surgery and radiation. When chemotherapy is used this way, it’s called adjuvant therapy.
  2. To shrink a tumor before surgery to make it easier to remove. This is called neo-adjuvant therapy.
  3. To kill cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body.

Together, you and your doctor will decide when to start chemotherapy, what drugs to use, and a schedule for taking them. Ask what side effects you may expect from medication.

Common Chemotherapy Drugs for Breast Cancer

Chemotherapy drugs used to treat early breast cancer include:

These drugs are often used with others like carboplatin, cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), and fluorouracil (5-FU).

Women who have the HER2 gene may be given ado-trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla), lapatinib (Tykerb), pertuzumab (Perjeta), or trastuzumab (Herceptin).

Drugs used to treat advanced breast cancer include:

Receiving Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer

You get chemotherapy as a pill or in a vein daily, weekly, or every 2-4 weeks. You may get one drug or a combination of them. Your treatment plan is designed for your particular situation.

If your veins are hard to find, you may get a catheter in a large vein. These devices are inserted by a surgeon or radiologist and have an opening to the skin or a port under the skin, allowing chemotherapy medications to be given. They can also be used to give fluids or take blood samples. Once chemotherapy is finished, your catheter will be removed.

Monitoring Your Treatment

Your doctor will check you regularly to see how your body is handling the chemotherapy. He'll do regular blood tests to count the number of blood cells you have. If you have too few red blood cells or white blood cells, you may get injections to boost them. If you have too few platelets, which clot blood, you may need a blood transfusion. Your chemotherapy may be postponed until white blood cells or platelets recover.

You may also get imaging scans to see how well the chemotherapy is working.


Side Effects of Breast Cancer Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy destroys cancer cells. But it also kills healthy cells, causing side effects. Medicine can help you feel better. It’s important to tell your doctor if you have any side effects, like:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Mouth soreness
  • Hair loss
  • Weight gain
  • Premature menopause. If you are planning to have children, tell your doctor before starting chemotherapy.
  • Lowered resistance to infections
  • Increased bleeding. If the platelet count is very low, little red spots may appear on your body. You may bruise or bleed easily.

Working During Chemo Treatment

Most people are able to keep working while being treated with chemo. Ask your doctor 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 hours, especially if you’re having side effects.

Recognizing a Cancer Emergency

Your doctor and the chemotherapy nurse will let you know what situations would be considered an emergency. But if you have any of the following warning signs, tell your doctor immediately:


WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on July 15, 2017



The Cleveland Clinic.

Taussig Cancer Center.

Physician's Daily Reference.

American Cancer Society: “Targeted therapy for breast cancer;” “Chemotherapy for breast cancer;” and “Central Venous Catheters.”

National Cancer Institute. “Managing Chemotherapy Side Effects.”

© 2017 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.