Unlike radiation and surgery, chemotherapy is a systemic therapy, meaning that it targets the whole body. Chemotherapy can be used both before surgery, to reduce the size of the tumor, and after surgery to kill other cancer cells in the body. It works by targeting the cells in the body that are rapidly dividing. Cancer cells grow in a fairly chaotic and rapid manner which is why chemotherapy works against cancer without killing a lot of non-cancer cells.
Chemotherapy is often done in combination and my include doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide, taxol, taxane, methotrexate and others.
Side effects of chemotherapy vary depending on the drug, the dose, the combination, and the schedule in which they are given. In general, these drugs can cause varying degrees of nausea, vomiting, low blood counts, tingling of the fingers and toes – known as neuropathy – and the weakening of heart muscle.
Your Providence Saint John’s breast cancer team will review the side effects you may experience from your specific treatment regimen.
If you receive chemotherapy treatments you may also be prescribed other medications to support your body as it responds to the chemotherapy and cancer cells are killed. Many different kinds of drugs can be given to prevent or help minimize specific side effects. For example, if a chemotherapy drug is known to cause nausea and vomiting, anti-nausea drugs may be given. Patients may receive agents called colony-stimulating factors to increase the production of certain blood cells; and granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) which can stimulate the body to produce infection-fighting white blood cells.