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Maj Patel
The term chemotherapy refers to the use of anticancer drugs to destroy or disable cancer cells. Dr. Malone, will you tell us more about chemotherapy?

Dr. Malone
Sure thing, Dr. Patel. Chemotherapy, often simply called “chemo,” is a treatment option for most types of breast cancer, but it’s used differently depending on the stage. In women with early stage breast cancer, chemotherapy is sometimes used after surgery and radiation to lower the risk of the cancer recurring. This is called adjuvant chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy used before surgery in women with larger tumors is called neoadjuvant chemotherapy. Chemo can shrink a large tumor enough so that lumpectomy becomes possible, rather than mastectomy.

In women with advanced stages of breast cancer, chemotherapy is used to decrease the number of cancer cells that have spread from the breast to other parts of the body in order to reduce cancer-related symptoms and prolong survival.

Chemotherapy can be systemic or regional. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body. This is systemic chemotherapy. Regional chemotherapy, on the other hand, describes a process where the drugs are placed directly into the affected organ or area of the body. The way chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of cancer being treated.

The side effects of chemotherapy depend mainly on the type and amount of medications being administered. Although these drugs can be very effective in terms of destroying cancer cells, they can also harm normal, rapidly dividing cells such as those found in the lining of the mouth and hair follicles. Common side effects can include hair loss, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and increased susceptibility to infection.

Chemotherapy is not usually given during the first three months of pregnancy, but it can be administered later in pregnancy. Chemo does not usually harm the unborn baby but may cause early labor and low birth weight.

There are a variety of drugs and combinations of drugs used in chemotherapy. If you are a candidate for chemotherapy, be sure to discuss the drugs available to you, along with the advantages, disadvantages, and side effects of each option.