What's the chemotherapy for breast cancer?
Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer drugs to treat cancerous cells. Chemotherapy reaches all part of the body, not just the cancer cells. The drugs travel through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells in most parts of the body. When used as adjuvant therapy after breast conservation therapy or mastectomy, chemotherapy reduces the risk of breast cancer recurrence. The chemotherapy is given in cycles, with each period of treatment followed by a recovery period. The usual
course of chemotherapy lasts around 6 months. Chemotherapy can also be used as the main treatment for women whose cancer has already spread outside the breast and underarm area at the time it is diagnosed or spreads after initial treatments. The length of these treatments is not definite, but depends on how much, if at all, the cancer shrinks.
Chemotherapy involves being given a combination of anti-cancer medicines, often up to three at a time. The prime target for such medicines is cancer cells that are actively growing and dividing. Unfortunately, anticancer medicines are not able to recognise cancer cells specifically and they also kill normally dividing cells such as the blood and hair cells. The art of the science behind successful cancer chemotherapy is combining medicines which are chosen to minimise the damage to blood cells while maximising damage to cancer cells.
Chemotherapy may be preferable for more advanced cancer that is not hormone responsive and for aggressive disease, particularly if the cancer has spread to other sites, such as the liver. It is sometimes administered prior to surgery in order to shrink a tumour. As outlined above, this sometimes means that the surgeon is able to perform less extensive surgery in patients whose cancers respond. Cancer chemotherapy is usually given through an intravenous drip in the hand or arm on an outpatient basis. Treatments vary but each session usually lasts between one and two hours and is repeated every three weeks. Patients may be frightened because they have heard about very unpleasant side effects such as nausea, vomiting and hair loss. In fact, by no means everyone will experience all or even any of these problems. Some of the anti-cancer drugs that are in common use cause little or no hair thinning and anti-sickness medicine given with the chemotherapy works well.
A common complaint in people receiving chemotherapy is of weight gain. This is due to the anti-sickness pills which are taken after the chemotherapy. Once the chemotherapy is finished, providing the patient remains active, they should return to their initial weight. One of the less well-known side effects of chemotherapy is to cause premature menopause. This means that periods are likely to stop at a much earlier age if you have had this type of treatment. Bringing forward the menopause is particularly likely to occur in women in their late 30s and 40s, but even younger women can find that their periods temporarily stop during chemotherapy.
As each person's individual medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his/her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild, or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team any/all possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins. Most side effects disappear once treatment is stopped.
Doxorubicin (Adriamycin) is an intravenous medication. Doxorubicin is red in color, and it turns urine red for several hours following treatment. Women who receive doxorubicin often experience mouth sores and hair loss. This drug is most often given with cyclophosphamide. This drug combination is referred to as “AC.” Four to six cycles of treatment over three to six months are commonly administered for breast cancer.
Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) is an anticancer drug that can be given either intravenously or orally in tablet form. The intravenous drug is clear. Cyclophosphamide can cause irritation of the lining of the urinary bladder and often nausea and vomiting. This drug is most often given with doxorubicin. This drug combination is referred to as “AC.” Four to six cycles of treatment over three to six months are commonly administered for breast cancer.
Methotrexate is an anticancer drug that is usually given intravenously for women with breast cancer. The drug is yellow in color. Some women who receive methotrexate experience mouth sores following treatment. This drug is most often given with both cyclophosphamide and fluouracil. This drug combination is referred to as “CMF.” Four to six cycles of treatment over three to six months are commonly given for breast cancer.
Fluorouracil (5FU) is an anticancer drug that is given intravenously. The intravenous drug is clear. For some women, fluorouracil can cause mouth sores and diarrhea. This drug is most often given with both cyclophosphamide and methotrexate. This drug combination is referred to as “CMF.” Four to six cycles of treatment over three to six months are commonly given for breast cancer.