Your Ultimate Guide to the Process of Chemotherapy to Cure Breast Cancer

Chemotherapy is a treatment practiced to cure cancer of different kinds. Though the core process of chemotherapy is the same for all sorts of cancer, there might be slight variations depending on the kind of cancer and cancer stage.

If you have been suggested with chemotherapy treatment to cure breast cancer, then here read this complete guide about it.

What Does Chemotherapy Treatment for Breast Cancer Means?

The chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer involves using drugs to destroy cancer cells. Such drugs are given directly into the vein through a catheter or needle.

This treatment is used in combination with other treatment, like surgery, hormone or radiation therapy. With chemotherapy, it is possible to boost the chances of a cure, reduce the risk of returning of cancer, combat symptoms of cancer and help people live a longer and better quality of life.

If cancer has spread or recurred, chemotherapy can help control the breast cancer so that you can live longer as well as ease symptoms of cancer.

But one thing you have to note is that chemotherapy for breast cancer also involves some risks of side effects, some mild and temporary, other permanent or serious. Under all circumstances, your doctor can help you decide whether chemotherapy for breast cancer is an ideal choice for you or not.

Why is Chemotherapy Practiced?

After your surgery performed to remove a cancerous tumor from the breast, your doctor may suggest chemotherapy to destroy any unidentified cancer cells and to reduce the risk of recurrence of cancer. It is known as adjuvant chemotherapy.

The adjuvant chemotherapy is suggested when you have a higher risk of cancer spreading to other parts of the body or cancer recurring, even when there is no proof or evidence of cancer after surgery. The risks of metastasis are more when there are cancers cells present in the lymph nodes near the breast with the tumor.

When undergoing chemotherapy you must discuss with your doctor the level to which this process will reduce your chances of recurrence of cancer. Also, you must discuss with your doctor other alternatives, which might be effective in your situation.

Chemotherapy Process before Surgery to Cure Early Breast Cancer

In some cases, chemotherapy is offered before surgery, which is known as neoadjuvant therapy. This is practiced to shrink the larger tumors. This would:

  • Enable the surgeon to remove the tumor completely
  • Allow the surgeon to remove cancerous tumor and not just entire breast
  • Reduce the extent of ailment in lymph nodes, hence, enabling for less invasive lymph node surgery
  • Reduce the chances of recurrence of cancer
  • Allow evaluation of tumor response to therapy that helps enhance prognosis and the finest chemotherapy drug choice

The neoadjuvant chemotherapy process is often used for:

  • HER2-positive breast cancer
  • Inflammatory breast cancer
  • Larger tumors
  • High-grade tumors
  • Cancers which have spread to the lymph nodes
  • Triple-negative breast cancers

Performing Chemotherapy as the Primary Treatment to Cure Advanced Breast Cancer

If breast cancer has extended to other parts of the body and it is not possible to cure it through surgery, then chemotherapy can be used as a primary treatment. The experts can perform it in combination with targeted therapy.

The main aim of this treatment for advanced breast cancer is to enhance the length and quality of life rather than cure the ailment.

But there are certain risks associated with this treatment as the chemotherapy medicines travel throughout the body. The side effects depend on the drugs one receives and how the body reacts to it. These side effects may get worse during the treatment. Once the process is finished, most of the side effects temporary subside.

Short-Term Side Effects of Chemotherapy

In order targeting and destroying the rapidly increasing cancer cells, chemotherapy drugs can damage the fast-growing healthy cells too, like those present in the bone marrow, hair follicles, and digestive tract.

Numerous chemotherapy drugs can damage the nerve endings in your feet and hand, resulting in pain, tingling, burning, numbness, weakness in extremities, and sensitivity to heat or cold. Such side effects may go away after completion of the treatment.

The other common short-term side-effects of chemotherapy are:

  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting and Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hair Loss
  • Mouth Sores
  • Nail and Skin changes
  • Diarrhea or Constipation
  • Increased risk of developing infections because of lesser white blood cells to fight infection
  • Issues with cognitive functions which affect concentration and memory
  • Neuropathy or damage of nerve

Your doctor can always prescribe your drugs to help reduce vomiting and nausea caused by chemotherapy. You can also talk to a doctor to know about ways to minimize these side effects.

Long-Term Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Some chemotherapy drugs can result in long-term side effects, such as:

Infertility – One long-term side effect of chemotherapy is infertility. Some anti-cancer drugs can damage ovaries, which may result in menopause symptoms like vaginal dryness, hot flashes, and more.

Osteoporosis and Osteopenia – This problem can occur in women who experience menopause early because of chemotherapy. For this reason, it is suggested for women to undergo through periodic bone density test and treatments to prevent further loss.

Leukemia – It is a rare case, but can occur as a result of chemotherapy for breast cancer.

Heart Damage – Chemotherapy also carries a slight risk of weakening heart muscles and causing other heart issues.

Assessing the Potential Benefits of Chemotherapy

This treatment for breast cancer may not work well in all people. The doctor, therefore, analyzes a number of factors to determine whether chemotherapy must be able to benefit you or not. The higher risks of metastasis, the more likely it will benefit. Some of the common factors considered are:

  • Grade and Size of the Tumor – The bigger the tumor is and have a higher grade, the higher are chances of stray cancer cells. Hence, your doctor would suggest you chemotherapy.
  • Genetic Profile – For certain kinds of breast cancer like hormone receptor breast cancer, your doctor would do genetic testing of the tumor tissue to learn genetic makeup of the particular breast cancer. Such tests are known as prosigns, mammaprint, and Oncotype DX that would predict the risk of recurrence and how breast cancer would respond to chemotherapy.
  • Status of Lymph Node – The breast cancer cells present in lymph nodes are mainly treated with chemotherapy.
  • Age – A few studies suggest that breast cancer occurring at a young age is highly aggressive than breast cancer, which develops later in life. The doctors would suggest adjuvant chemotherapy when curing those diagnosed at a younger age to reduce the chances of cancer returning.
  • Hormonal Status – If the breast cancer is sensitive to hormones progesterone and estrogen, hormone therapy with estrogen blockers would be a better option for the adjuvant therapy.
  • HER2 Status – If the breast cancer releases too much growth-promoting protein called as HER2, the doctor would suggest chemotherapy and drugs, which specifically target this protein.

What You Can Expect During the Process of Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy for breast cancer is offered in cycles. Each cycle may vary from once a week to once every two or three weeks. Each session of the treatment is followed by a period of recovery.

Usually, if you are suffering from early-stage breast cancer, you will undergo chemotherapy treatments for 3 to 6 months. If your cancer is at an advanced stage then chemotherapy will continue for more than 6 months.

There are different kinds of chemotherapy drugs available. Since each person is different, so the drugs and medications are offered in different combinations.

Chemotherapy drugs are offered in a range of ways, including pills that are asked to take at home. Most often, these drugs are injected into a vein through:

  • A catheter port implanted in the chest before the beginning of the process and the port stays in place for the duration of chemotherapy treatment and alleviates the need to find a suitable vein at each session of the treatment.
  • An IV needle and catheter in your wrist or hand

During a Chemotherapy Session

Not all chemotherapy sessions are similar, but most of them follow this order.

  1. Your blood sample is drawn for blood count and other blood tests.
  2. You meet a doctor to review the results of the blood test and assess overall health condition.
  3. Your doctor suggests chemotherapy process.
  4. You undergo through a brief physical exam to check your blood pressure, pulse, and temperature.
  5. You are offered medications to prevent side effects like anxiety, inflammation or nausea.
  6. You get chemotherapy drugs and the process may take up to several hours.

Results

Once the chemotherapy treatment is completed, your doctor will schedule follow-up visits for around 4 to 6 months till you are declared cancer free. This is to monitor the long-term side effects and to identify recurrence of breast cancer.

Your doctor will conduct a physical exam, including an analysis of the breast. He will also ask about new symptoms you might be experiencing.

You need to go through mammograms on a yearly basis as a part of your follow-up. Other tests, like liver function test, tumor marker test, CT scans, PET scans, chest –rays, and bone scans, usually are not suggested until there is a particular need. Some additional tests are performed when a recurrence is suspected.



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