Administration of Anticancerous Medication
Chemotherapy, given in a hospital setting, is the administration of anticancerous medication by injection to treat the disease. This treatment is usually systemic, meaning that the medication circulates throughout the entire body to destroy all cancerous cells, especially the ones that could have escaped from the initial (primary) tumour. This medication can slow down or prevent these cells from either multiplying or spreading throughout the body.
When treating breast cancer with chemotherapy, a combination of several different medications, from the more than 50 available, is generally used. Most often, these medications are injected slowly, through a tube inserted into a vein (intravenously). Some medications may be given orally. Since each cancer case is different, the medication “cocktail” known as protocol or chemotherapy regimen varies from one patient to another.
Each medication plays a specific role, such as damaging cancer cells at a specific stage of their life cycle, attacking the cell genes to stop their growth, or destroying them by preventing the protein they contain from functioning normally.
Chemotherapy may be used on its own, or as part of a complete breast cancer treatment. Many women with the disease can have chemotherapy before, after or even while undergoing other treatments.
Chemotherapy is used in the following cases to treat breast cancer:
- after surgery, to eliminate the remaining cancerous cells and reduce the risk of a new cancer (relapse). This is adjuvant chemotherapy. If the treatment plan includes radiotherapy, chemotherapy is often administered first;
- before surgery, to reduce the size of a large breast tumour. This is neoadjuvant chemotherapy;
- to treat a relapse of breast cancer;
- to relieve pain or control the symptoms of advanced breast cancer. This is palliative chemotherapy.
The decision to recommend chemotherapy as a treatment for breast cancer, just as much as the choice of medication to be administered, depends on several elements, such as the stage of the cancer—it must be locally advanced, with a high risk of relapse—as well as the woman’s overall state of health, her age, and any previous health issues.
For instance, chemotherapy could be contraindicated for patients with certain types of heart disease. As well, women who have already been administered chemotherapeutic agents like anthracycline may not be able to take more.
Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Choosing chemotherapy to battle breast cancer also depends on the personal situation and preferences of the woman suffering from the disease, especially in light of the fact that this treatment can cause significant side effects: nausea and vomiting, exhaustion, mouth sores, increased risk of infection, and hair loss.
It’s because chemotherapy attacks not only the cancerous cells but also the healthy cells that it can cause these side effects, depending mostly on the type of medication and the dose that is administered.
Women of childbearing age should be aware that certain chemotherapeutic agents can affect fertility, either by interrupting menstruation during the treatment period, or by triggering premature menopause. It’s therefore important for women who want, or may one day want to have children, to discuss available treatment options with their doctor. Don’t hesitate to call our support line if you have any questions or concerns regarding your fertility.
Because of these side effects the mere mention of the word “chemotherapy” can conjure up feelings of anxiety and fear in many people. Regardless of this, it is important to keep the following five points in mind:
- chemotherapy is a very powerful weapon against cancer. In spite of its drawbacks, it can make a real difference in the battle against breast cancer as it can slow down or halt its development;
- other medications or techniques can help alleviate, and in some cases eliminate the undesirable effects of chemotherapy. Speak to your medical team about these options;
- chemotherapy is constantly improving due to advancements in scientific research, notably through the development of more effective treatments with fewer side effects;
- each person reacts differently to chemotherapy. Some women experience few side effects, while others experience many. Also, these side effects do not manifest at the same stage of treatment for every person treated;
- almost all these side effects gradually disappear soon after the end of the treatment.