Chemotherapy is a chemical treatment, which is not only used for breast cancer, but also other forms of cancer. The drugs used during chemo have a high level of toxicity, which is supposed to kill of the cancer cells, but also kills off healthy cells. The chemotherapy drugs are administered through injections into the vein (intravenously) or as tablets. Administering the drugs through an IV usually takes a few hours. Following the treatment, patients receive a rest period of a few weeks; this allows the body to recover from the side effects. Chemotherapy usually takes between 4 and 6 months.
There are many different types of chemotherapy drugs, and combination drugs, used to treat breast cancer. Doctors often offer the choice of chemotherapy, because the different combinations have different side effects. Here is a list of individual chemotherapy drugs:
A list of combination drugs
Chemotherapy drugs can cause side effects, but these can usually be controlled through other medicines. Some of the side effects are:
- Lowered resistance to infection - chemotherapy reduces the production of white blood cells by the bone marrow, making patients more vulnerable to infections. It is important that you contact your doctor immediately if:
- Your temperature rises above 38ºC (100.5ºF)
- You suddenly feel ill (even without a fever)
- Bruising or bleeding - chemotherapy can also reduce the production of platelets, these help against blood clots. This can cause unexplained bruising or bleeding, such as nosebleeds, bloodspots or rashes on your skin, or even bleeding gums. If you encounter any of this during your chemotherapy you must contact your doctor.
- Low red blood cell count (anemia) - chemotherapy may make you anemic, meaning that you may feel tired and breathless.
- Nausea and vomiting - certain drugs can make you feel sick, or even be sick. This can be helped by taking anti-emetics (anti-sick drugs), you can contact your doctor for more information about this.
- Sore mouth - some drugs can make your mouth sore and may cause small ulcers.
- Poor appetite - the treatment may cause you to lose your appetite. It is important to stay nutritious during the chemo, and you could replace meals with nutritious drinks or a soft diet. View our section on Keeping Healthy for more information.
- Hair loss - certain drugs may cause hair loss during chemo, which can be very upsetting. But it is only temporary, and should start to grow back within 3-6 months after the end of treatment.
Not every chemotherapy patient will encounter the above side effects, but those who do will notice that they will gradually disappear once treatment is over.
Chemotherapy patients must also keep the following in mind:
- Early Menopause - certain drugs might trigger an early menopause for certain women.
- Contraception - doctors strongly advise against pregnancy during chemotherapy, as the drugs may harm the developing fetus. It is important to use effective contraception during your treatment, and for at least a year after the treatment is completed. It is also very important that condoms are used during sex within the first 48 hours after chemotherapy, this to protect your partner from any of the drug that may be present in vaginal fluid.