No woman or man wants to hear these dreaded words: "You have breast cancer." Despite the increases in breast cancer screening examinations; increased public awareness of the disease; and advances in research, approximately 212,290 women and 1,720 men will hear those words in 2006. Once the disease has been diagnosed a patient's only hope is to receive the best possible medical treatment available.
Depending on the nature and severity of the diagnosis, a patient might be treated with chemotherapy for breast cancer. In the past, chemotherapy was defined as any medicine used to treat any disease. Under this definition, even taking an aspirin would have been considered chemotherapy. Now, chemotherapy is almost exclusively associated with medicines that treat cancer.
Chemotherapy breast cancer treatments are given either by mouth or through an injection into the vein (intravenously). Once taken the drugs travel through the bloodstream to reach cancerous cells located in most parts of the body. Chemotherapy for breast cancer can be used in the following three ways:
1. Neoadjuvant therapy refers to chemotherapy given before surgery. The main benefit of this type of chemotherapy is that it shrinks large cancerous tumors, thus making them small enough to remove by lumpectomy (removal of tumors only) as opposed to mastectomy (removal of entire breast).
2. Adjuvant therapy is chemotherapy that is given after a lumpectomy or mastectomy to reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence by killing any cancerous cells that might still be in the body. Both neoadjuvant and adjuvant therapies are secondary treatments that complement the main breast cancer treatment.
3. Primary treatment therapy is chemotherapy that is used as the primary treatment method. It is used to treat women whose breast cancer, at the time of diagnosis, has already spread outside of the breast and underarm areas. It is also used to treat cancer that spreads after initial treatment.
In most cases, chemotherapy breast cancer treatments are most effective as adjuvant therapy that uses a combination of chemotherapy drugs. Chemotherapy for breast cancer is given in cycles. Each treatment period is followed by a rest period. The chemotherapy is given on the first day of a two- or three-week cycle; however some drugs are given in shorter cycles. Chemotherapy is given in cycles so that the body has time to recover from the effects of the treatment. For adjuvant therapy, these two- to three-week cycles generally lasts about three to six months, depending on the kind of drugs that are used.
Even though taking chemotherapy is a life-saving treatment for many men and women with breast cancer, the side effects can be debilitating and traumatic. Temporary side effects include fatigue, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, hair loss, changes in the menstrual cycle, and mouth sores. Damage to the blood-producing cells in the bone marrow can cause low blood counts in chemotherapy patients that can lead to increased chance of contracting infections, and bleeding or bruising after minor cuts or injuries. Permanent side effects include premature menopause, infertility, and permanent heart damage.
It is important to note that there are very effective medications for treating temporary side effects. Although the potential permanent side effects are scary, the fact that chemotherapy for breast cancer can prevent the recurrence of cancer and save lives makes it a powerful and necessary treatment.
No woman or man ever wants to hear the words: "You have breast cancer." However, sound medical advice and chemotherapy for breast cancer can transform a cancer victim into a long-term cancer survivor.