The what, why and how of chemotherapy
Chemotherapy (also called chemo) is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to destroy cancer cells.
Chemotherapy works by stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, which grow and divide quickly.
Depending on your type of cancer and how advanced it is, chemotherapy can:
- Cure cancer—when chemotherapy destroys cancer cells to the point that your doctor can no longer detect them in your body and they will not grow back.
- Control cancer—when chemotherapy keeps cancer from spreading, slows its growth, or destroys cancer cells that have spread to other parts of your body.
- Ease cancer symptoms (also called palliative care)—when chemotherapy shrinks tumors that are causing pain or pressure.
Chemotherapy for breast cancer
Chemotherapy is usually given intravenously (through the veins) and is usually recommended for patients with positive lymph nodes or tumors of a certain size and/or grade. The main purpose of chemotherapy is to attack or get rid of any undetectable tumor cells that may be outside the breast (this is often referred to as "systemic" or "whole body" therapy).
Great progress has been made in cancer chemotherapy as new drugs and better combinations of drugs have been developed. Side effects, such as nausea and vomiting, are now better controlled with anti-nausea medications. Some of these can be given before, along-with, or after chemotherapy. With these medicines or medications, some people have no side effects at all.
There are a variety of chemotherapy regiments and whether or not you will require chemotherapy often depends on the results of surgery. Therefore, a full discussion regarding the risks and benefits of chemotherapy is usually conducted with a medical oncologist after surgery.