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 (such as hormone receptor status), as well as your age, overall health and personal preferences.
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 breast cancer recurrence by getting rid of cancer cells that might still be in the body. These cells are too small to see on scans or to measure with lab tests.
Learn more about getting 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 so 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.
Chemotherapy usually lasts 3-6 months, but you have days or weeks off between treatments.
Your treatment schedule depends on the combination of drugs given.
Learn how chemotherapy is given and what to expect at each chemotherapy session.
Learn about chemotherapy drugs.
There are many effective chemotherapy drugs. Often, a combination of 2-3 chemotherapy drugs is used.
Learn more about chemotherapy drugs.
Chemotherapy has many common side effects.
Most side effects occur during treatment and begin to go away shortly after treatment ends. Others can last for months or even years.
Learn about easing worries over side effects of chemotherapy.
Learn about short-term side effects of chemotherapy.
Learn about long-term side effects of chemotherapy.
Research is ongoing to improve chemotherapy. New drugs and ways to help guide chemotherapy decisions are under study in clinical trials.
Learn more about emerging areas in chemotherapy for early and locally advanced breast cancer.
Learn more about emerging areas in treatment for metastatic breast cancer.
Learn more about clinical trials.
Learn more about talking with your health care provider.
It may be helpful to download and print Susan G. Komen®'s Questions to Ask Your Doctor card on chemotherapy and side effects and take it with you to your next doctor appointment. There’s plenty of space to write down the answers to these questions, which you can refer to later.
You can also download other Questions to Ask Your Doctor cards on many different breast cancer topics. These cards are a nice tool for people recently diagnosed with breast cancer, who may be too overwhelmed to know where to begin to gather information.
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 increase survival.
Learn more about treatment for metastatic breast cancer.
Although the exact treatment for breast cancer varies from person to person, guidelines help ensure high-quality care. These guidelines are based on the latest research and agreement among experts.
The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) and the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) are respected organizations that regularly review and update their guidelines.
In addition, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has treatment overviews.
Talk with your health care providers about which treatment guidelines they use. Since there’s often a lag time between the latest research and guideline updates, most providers prefer to base their treatment on the latest research.
Breast cancer treatment is most effective when all parts of the treatment plan are followed as prescribed.
It’s important to follow the treatment plan (for medications and other therapies) prescribed by your health care provider in terms of:
Although most side effects go away shortly after chemotherapy ends, preventing or treating symptoms can help you complete your course of chemotherapy.
Don't feel you have to endure side effects, such as nausea. Talk with your health care provider about any side effects you have.
Your provider 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.
Learn more about the importance of following your breast cancer treatment plan.
Most chemotherapy drugs for breast cancer are given by vein (through an IV) in an outpatient setting at a hospital or clinic.
Getting to and from the treatment can be hard, especially if you live far away.
If you need a ride to and from treatment or have child care or elder care needs that make getting to treatments difficult, there may be resources to help.
Family and friends often want to help, but don’t know how. These may be ways for them to help. Don't hesitate to ask for help.
Sometimes, there are programs that help with local or long-distance transportation and lodging (if you need a place to stay overnight during treatment).
There are also programs that help with child care and elder care costs.
A few chemotherapy drugs for breast cancer are pills.
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 mobile device (you may be able to download an app) may help .
Chemotherapy drug costs can quickly become a financial burden for you and your family. You may hear the term financial toxicity to describe this burden.
Medicare and many insurance providers offer prescription drug plans. One may already be included in your policy or you may be able to buy an extra plan for prescriptions.
Some drugs are off-patent and may have a generic form. Generic drugs cost less than the name brands, but are just as effective.
You may also qualify for programs that help with drug costs or offer low-cost or free prescriptions.
Learn more about insurance plans and prescription drug assistance programs.
Learn more about other financial assistance programs.
Susan G. Komen®'s position on fairness in oral cancer drug coverage
Intravenous (IV) chemotherapy is a well-known part of cancer treatment. Today, however, some chemotherapy drugs are pills (known as oral chemotherapy).
Insurance coverage of oral cancer drugs
Insurance policies haven’t kept pace with treatment advances. IV chemotherapy is usually covered under a health insurance plan’s medical benefit, whereas oral chemotherapy is usually covered under a plan’s prescription drug benefit.
As a result, people often find themselves facing high out-of-pocket costs when filling prescriptions for oral chemotherapy. Sometimes this can cost thousands of dollars a month.
The impact of high drug costs
High prescription drug costs are a barrier to care. They can prevent people from getting the medications prescribed by their health care providers.
No one should be forced to get less appropriate treatment because an insurer gives more coverage for IV chemotherapy than oral chemotherapy.
Efforts to increase fairness in drug coverage
Komen supports state and federal efforts to require insurers to provide the same or better coverage for oral chemotherapy as they do for IV chemotherapy. This would help ensure patients have access to affordable, appropriate treatment.
Ask your U.S. representative to co-sponsor the Cancer Drug Parity Act.
Komen Treatment Assistance Program
Susan G. Komen® partners with CancerCare® to offer the Komen Treatment Assistance Program which bridges the gap for underserved individuals who are actively undergoing breast cancer treatment.
With this program, we aim to help those who are facing financial challenges by providing the following to low-income, underinsured or uninsured women across the country: an assessment by an oncology social worker, limited financial assistance, breast cancer education, psychosocial support and information about local resources.
Funding helps women of any age who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, at any stage of the disease. Financial assistance is granted to women who meet pre-determined eligibility criteria. To learn more about this program and other helpful resources, call the Komen Breast Care Helpline at 1-877 GO KOMEN (1-877-465-6636).
If you are facing chemotherapy, remember, many people have been where you are today. They had the same fears. They've gone through breast cancer treatment, recovered and are living their lives.
Sharing experiences and advice with others going through chemotherapy or those who’ve finished treatment may help.
Our Support section offers a list of resources to help find local and online support groups. Your health care provider may also be able to help you find a local support group.
Learn more about social support and support groups.
SUSAN G. KOMEN® SUPPORT RESOURCES
Interactive Treatment Navigation Tool
Breast Cancer 101 - Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Facts for Life: Chemotherapy for Early Breast Cancer
Questions to Ask Your Doctor: Chemotherapy and Side Effects
1-877 GO KOMEN(1-877-465-6636)
What gives you strength during treatment?