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Chemotherapy and Side Effects 
Fact Sheet


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Chemotherapy drugs kill or disable cancer cells. Chemotherapy is a treatment option for most types of breast cancer. The decision to use chemotherapy is based on the tumor stage and certain tumor characteristics, as well as your age, overall health and personal preferences.

Chemotherapy for early and locally advanced breast cancer

Chemotherapy after breast surgery (adjuvant chemotherapy)

For those with early breast cancer, chemotherapy is usually given after breast surgery (called adjuvant chemotherapy) but before radiation therapy. Adjuvant chemotherapy helps lower the risk of recurrence by getting rid of cancer cells that might still be present in the body.

Chemotherapy before breast surgery (neoadjuvant chemotherapy)

Chemotherapy is sometimes used before surgery (called neoadjuvant or preoperative chemotherapy). In women with large tumors who need a mastectomy, neoadjuvant chemotherapy may shrink the tumor enough that a lumpectomy becomes an option.

In women with locally advanced breast cancer, neoadjuvant chemotherapy can reduce the size of the tumor in the breast and/or in the lymph nodes, and make it easier to surgically remove the cancer.

Learn more about neoadjuvant chemotherapy

Komen Perspectives 

 Read our perspective on neoadjuvant chemotherapy (September 2010).* 


Chemotherapy for metastatic breast cancer

For those with metastatic breast cancer, chemotherapy is used to kill cancer cells that have spread from the breast to other parts of the body. Chemotherapy can reduce cancer-related symptoms and prolong survival.

Learn more about treatment for metastatic breast cancer.

Chemotherapy treatment guidelines

Although exact chemotherapy plans vary from person to person, treatment guidelines help ensure quality care. These guidelines are based on the latest research and the consensus of experts. The National Comprehensive Care Network (NCCN) and American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) are two respected organizations that regularly update and post their guidelines online. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) also has overviews of treatment options.

Importance of following your breast cancer treatment plan

The importance of adherence (compliance)

Breast cancer treatment is most effective when all parts of the treatment plan are followed. Adherence (also called compliance) is how closely people follow the treatment plan (for medications and other therapies) prescribed by their health care providers in terms of:

  • Timing
  • Dose
  • Frequency

Completing oral chemotherapy

Side effects are one reason people have trouble completing oral chemotherapy [24]. Although most side effects go away shortly after chemotherapy ends, preventing or treating symptoms can help you complete your course of chemotherapy. You should never feel you have to endure side effects, such as nausea, without any support. Talk to your health care provider about any side effects you are having. He/she may be able to prescribe medications to treat your side effects or change your treatment plan to reduce them.

Learn more about the side effects of chemotherapy.

If you have trouble remembering to take oral chemotherapy or medications to treat side effects, a daily pillbox or setting an alarm on your watch or phone may help [3].  

Learn more about adherence.

*Please note, the information provided within Komen Perspectives articles is only current as of the date of posting. Therefore, some information may be out of date at this time.

Updated 03/28/14


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