The use of cancer-killing drugs to treat cancer is called chemotherapy. The drugs can be administered intravenously, injected, or taken by mouth as a pill or a liquid. Once the drugs have entered the bloodstream, they circulate throughout the body, making them useful in killing any cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body.

Chemotherapy can be used either before or after surgery. It can be used as neoadjuvant therapy (therapy administered before surgery to shrink the tumor(s), so they are small enough to be removed by breast-conserving surgery rather than mastectomy) or as adjuvant therapy (additional therapy administered after surgery to patients who appear to be cancer free) to lower the chances of the cancer returning. .

Chemotherapy is generally given in cycles. Each round of treatment is usually followed by a rest period. The time between cycles tends to be two or three weeks but can vary depending on the drug or combination of drugs being used. Treatment for patients with early-stage breast cancer lasts roughly three to six months. For patients with cancer in the advanced stages, it can last much longer, often until the drugs are no longer working.

A woman’s menstrual cycle may stop while she is undergoing chemotherapy. This does not mean she cannot get pregnant. Women who plan to be sexually active during chemotherapy treatment should speak with their physician about effective birth control methods, as the chemo drugs can have harmful effects on the fetus.

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

There are several possible side effects women can experience while undergoing chemotherapy. Possible short-term side effects include

  • Hair loss
  • Loss of appetite or increased appetite
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Stopping of a woman's menstrual cycle
  • Higher risk of infection
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Fatigue

Most short-term side effects go away once treatment is completed. Those experiencing difficulty with side effects should speak with their physician, as there are ways to relieve them.

Possible long-term side effects include

  • Changes in a woman’s menstrual cycle: For many women, their menstrual cycles stop while they are undergoing chemotherapy. For some, they don’t start again, even after treatment is finished. These women go through menopause. Other women whose menstrual periods do return may find themselves unable to become pregnant.
  • Nerve damage: Certain chemo drugs may cause nerve damage. Nerve damage as a result of chemotherapy can lead to pain, burning or tingling sensations, sensitivity to cold or warmth, or weakness, generally in the hands or feet. These symptoms generally disappear once treatment is completed but can last longer.
  • Heart damage: If used for prolonged periods of time or administered in high doses, certain chemotherapy drugs can cause heart damage. Heart function will be checked and monitored in those who are being treated with one of these drugs.