Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs that treat breast cancer are usually given through a vein (intravenous) or as a pill. You'll probably receive a combination of drugs.
You may receive chemotherapy in an outpatient part of the hospital, at the doctor's office, or at home. Some women need to stay in the hospital during treatment.
The side effects depend mainly on which drugs are given and how much. Chemotherapy kills fast-growing cancer cells, but the drugs can also harm normal cells that divide rapidly:
- Blood cells: When drugs lower the levels of healthy blood cells, you're more likely to get infections, bruise or bleed easily, and feel very weak and tired. Your health care team will check for low levels of blood cells. If your levels are low, your health care team may stop the chemotherapy for a while or reduce the dose of the drug. There are also medicines that can help your body make new blood cells.
- Cells in hair roots: Chemotherapy may cause hair loss. If you lose your hair, it will grow back after treatment, but the color and texture may be changed.
- Cells that line the digestive tract: Chemotherapy can cause a poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth and lip sores. Your health care team can give you medicines and suggest other ways to help with these problems.
Some drugs used for breast cancer can cause tingling or numbness in the hands or feet. This problem often goes away after treatment is over.
Other problems may not go away. For example, some of the drugs used for breast cancer may weaken the heart. Your doctor may check your heart before, during, and after treatment. A rare side effect of chemotherapy is that years after treatment, a few women have developed leukemia (cancer of the blood cells).
Some anticancer drugs can damage the ovaries. If you have not gone through menopause yet, you may have hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Your menstrual periods may no longer be regular or may stop. You may become infertile (unable to become pregnant). For women over the age of 35, this damage to the ovaries is likely to be permanent.
On the other hand, you may remain able to become pregnant during chemotherapy. Before treatment begins, you should talk with your doctor about birth control because many drugs given during the first trimester are known to cause birth defects.