Chemotherapy is a form of therapy that employs drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body in order to kill cancer cells. The side effects from the chemotherapy come from the fact that it destroys normal cells as well as the cancer cells. Options for men may be more limited.
The type of chemotherapy you receive will depend on the type and stage of your cancer. New combinations of chemotherapy are constantly being designed as new information is discovered. The most common chemotherapeutic drug combinations are:
Chemotherapy is usually given by vein, but some forms can be given by mouth as well. Your oncologist will tell you how many cycles or courses of chemotherapy are best for you. Usually there are between 4-8 cycles when the chemotherapy is delivered on its own.
The side effects and amount of time required in the doctor’s office depend on the type of chemotherapy you receive, as well as how many cycles you receive and how often. The most common chemotherapy-associated side effects are:
As a result of chemotherapy, you may experience premature menopause, with all its symptoms and effects, including the loss of fertility. Some chemotherapeutic drugs also may cause serious side effects later on, including damage to the heart muscle (doxorubicin), and very rarely, the development of leukemia much later on.
Chemotherapy can be combined with estrogen-blocking drugs, such as tamoxifen or the newer class of drugs called aromatase inhibitors (AIs). Estrogen binds to the estrogen-sensitive cells and stimulates them to grow and divide. AIs prevent the binding of estrogen to stop the cells from growing. This also prevents or delays breast cancer recurrence. These drugs will produce symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes or night sweats, in many women. They may also produce a condition called tumor flare in people with advanced cancer metastatic to bone, resulting in increased blood calcium. This may be a serious health threat that requires hospitalization.
Occasionally, deep venous thrombosis (clotting of the veins in the leg) can occur and can be life-threatening. There is also a reported increase in the risk of endometrial cancer in women who take tamoxifen.
Chemotherapy can also be combined with biologic therapy. Biologic agents can be used to alter or boost the immune system to improve the body's ability to fight cancer cells. They can be given prior to surgery to help shrink the tumor. If there is a concern the cancer has spread, or a high risk of occurrence exists, biological therapy can be used after surgery as well.
Breast cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003090-pdf.pdf. Accessed January 6, 2014.
Breast cancer in men. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003091-pdf.pdf. Accessed January 6, 2014.
Breast cancer in men. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated August 1, 2012. Accessed January 6, 2014.
Breast cancer in women. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated January 3, 2014. Accessed January 6, 2014.
Last reviewed January 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.