Breast Cancer (cont.)
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs that treat breast
cancer are usually given through a vein (intravenous) or as a pill. You'll
probably receive a combination of drugs.
You may receive chemotherapy in an outpatient part of the hospital, at the
doctor's office, or at home. Some women need to stay in the hospital during
The side effects depend mainly on which drugs are given and how much.
Chemotherapy kills fast-growing cancer cells, but the drugs can also harm normal
cells that divide rapidly:
- Blood cells: When drugs lower the levels of healthy blood cells, you're
more likely to get infections, bruise or bleed easily, and feel very weak
and tired. Your health care team will check for low levels of blood cells.
If your levels are low, your health care team may stop the chemotherapy for
a while or reduce the dose of the drug. There are also medicines that can
help your body make new blood cells.
- Cells in hair roots: Chemotherapy may cause hair loss. If you lose your
hair, it will grow back after treatment, but the color and texture may be
- Cells that line the digestive tract: Chemotherapy can cause a poor
appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth and lip sores. Your health
care team can give you medicines and suggest other ways to help with these
Some drugs used for breast cancer can cause tingling or numbness in the hands
or feet. This problem often goes away after treatment is over.
Other problems may not go away. For example, some of the drugs used for
breast cancer may weaken the heart. Your doctor may check your heart before,
during, and after treatment. A rare side effect of chemotherapy is that years
after treatment, a few women have developed leukemia (cancer of the blood
Some anticancer drugs can damage the ovaries. If you have not gone through
menopause yet, you may have hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Your menstrual
periods may no longer be regular or may stop. You may become infertile (unable
to become pregnant). For women over the age of 35, this damage to the ovaries is
likely to be permanent.
On the other hand, you may remain able to become pregnant during
chemotherapy. Before treatment begins, you should talk with your doctor about
birth control because many drugs given during the first trimester are known to
cause birth defects.
Some women with breast cancer may receive drugs called targeted therapy.
Targeted therapy uses drugs that block the growth of breast cancer cells.
For example, targeted therapy may block the action of an abnormal protein
(such as HER2) that stimulates the growth of breast cancer cells.
Trastuzumab (Herceptin®) or lapatinib (TYKERB®) may be given to a woman whose
lab tests show that her breast tumor has too much HER2:
- Trastuzumab: This drug is given through a vein. It may be given
alone or with chemotherapy. Side effects that most commonly occur during the
first treatment include fever and chills. Other possible side effects
include weakness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, difficulty
breathing, and rashes. These side effects generally become less severe after
the first treatment. Trastuzumab also may cause heart damage, heart failure,
and serious breathing problems. Before and during treatment, your doctor
will check your heart and lungs.
- Lapatinib: The tablet is taken by mouth. Lapatinib is given with
chemotherapy. Side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tiredness,
mouth sores, and rashes. It can also cause red, painful hands and feet.
Before treatment, your doctor will check your heart and liver. During
treatment, your doctor will watch for signs of heart, lung, or liver
|You may want to ask your doctor these questions before having hormone
therapy, chemotherapy, or targeted therapy:
- What drugs will I be taking? What will they do?
- When will treatment start?
When will it end? How often will I have treatments?
- Where will I have treatment?
- What can I do to take care of myself during treatment?
- How will we know the
treatment is working?
- Which side effects should I tell you about?
- Will there be
- How often will I need checkups?