Chemotherapy for breast cancer

The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on September 14, 2021.

Chemotherapy uses drugs that attack and kill cancer cells or slow their division and growth. Chemotherapy drugs for breast cancer may be given in pill form or by injection or infusion and are often used in combination with other cancer treatments, such as surgery, radiation therapy or targeted therapy.

Neoadjuvant (or primary systemic) breast cancer chemotherapy is used before surgery to reduce the size of large breast tumors and to destroy cancer cells. This type of chemotherapy often makes breast-conserving surgery possible. It also helps our cancer doctors determine the effect a particular regimen is having on the breast tumor.

Adjuvant breast cancer chemotherapy is used after surgery or radiation therapy to eliminate remaining cancer cells that may not have been removed during breast cancer surgery and/or radiation therapy. It also may prevent the disease from spreading to other parts of the body.

The type of chemotherapy drug used, and when it is used in combination with other treatments, depends on the individual patient, the type of breast cancer and its stage.

Learn more about adjuvant and neoadjuvant cancer treatments

Six ways to prepare yourself for chemo

In 2015, Beth W. was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. After receiving her initial treatment at another facility, she sought out a second opinion at Cancer Treatment Centers of America®(CTCA), where she eventually underwent chemotherapy, radiation and surgery—a nine-month treatment plan. For the past six years, Beth’s scans have shown no evidence of disease, and today, she serves in our Cancer Fighters program, helping other patients through their cancer journey with tips, advice and peer support. One aspect she gets the most questions about is how she dealt with chemotherapy. Here are the six ways she says she prepared for her treatments and the side effects they caused.


Side effects of chemotherapy

Chemotherapy drugs attack fast-growing cells throughout the body, including cancer cells. But some normal cells in the body also grow quickly and may also be attacked by chemotherapy drugs. Those cells include:

  • Immune cells and those found in bone marrow
  • Cells found in the digestive system
  • Hair follicle cells

When chemotherapy attacks these normal, healthy cells, it may cause side effects, such as:

Side effects of chemotherapy vary depending on the patient, the drug(s) used and the dosage. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), your care team will be as proactive as possible in anticipating and combating side effects so you can better tolerate your breast cancer chemotherapy treatments. Your care team may also offer a combination of supportive care services, based on your individual needs, to help you manage side effects. Nutritional therapy, naturopathic support, mind-body medicine and other services may help to reduce chemotherapy-related symptoms so you can continue to participate in the activities you enjoy.

A medical oncologist explains the benefits and risks of chemotherapy

What are the benefits and risks of chemotherapy? A medical oncologist provides a balanced, in-depth look at what you need to know.


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