Breast cancer treatment with Chemotherapy

Updated: Oct 18, 2011, 11:43 AM IST

In breast cancer treatment, chemotherapy means the use of anti-cancer drugs to kill or slow the growth of rapidly multiplying cells. This treatment weakens and finally wipes out the cancer cells in the body, including cells at the original cancer site and any cancer cells that have multiplied to others part of the body. Chemotherapy, also referred to as `chemo`, is a systemic therapy which affects the whole body by going through the bloodstream.

Three main types of chemotherapy-

1) Neo-adjuvant chemotherapy- The treatment given before surgery to shrink the size of a tumor so that it can be removed more easily.

2) Adjuvant chemotherapy- Chemotherapy may be given when the breast cancer is limited to the breast or lymph nodes. This treatment is given after surgery to lessen the risk of recurrence.

3) Palliative chemotherapy- The treatment to control the cancer which has spread beyond the breast and localized lymph nodes. Here, chemotherapy treatment is palliative as a way to extend life and alleviate symptoms.

Multiple chemotherapeutic agents may be used in combination to treat patients with breast cancer. Determining the proper schedule to use depends on factors like the character of the tumor, lymph node status, and the age and health of the patient.

Chemotherapy treatments are given in cycles, with time for recovery in between each cycle. Generally, chemotherapy treatment lasts from 3-6 months. Chemotherapy can be administered orally through a pill, capsule or liquid form. It can also be administered using an intravenous tube. In some cases, it is administered through a `port`- a small device that is inserted in the upper chest wall via minor same-day surgery. Medication is administered through the port to insure that drugs go directly to the bloodstream.

Benefits of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can kill cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body. While other forms of cancer treatment such as radiation and surgery are directed at the region where the cancer growth begins or is most highly concentrated, chemotherapy can reach cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body or that may have been missed in the diagnosis by physicians.

Chemotherapy is beneficial in treating all types of breast cancer even in cases where cancer was not found in the lymph nodes. Studies have shown that chemotherapy reduced the likelihood of recurrence of breast cancer by 35% among women under the age of 50 and by 20% in women aged 50-69.

In addition, chemotherapy has long-term benefits. The percentage of women with node negative disease (breast cancer not found in lymph nodes) who survived 10 years after diagnosis increased from 71% to 78% with chemotherapy and from 67% to 69% among older women.

Side effects during and after treatment-

Chemotherapy is one of the most common types of breast cancer treatments that benefits women with breast cancer cases. However, breast cancer chemotherapy is not for everyone and there are certain side effects of chemotherapy that can affect everyday life.

The major drawback of chemotherapy is the development of treatment-related side effects. During treatment, the patient may experience a range of gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal or constitutional symptoms. Patients undergoing chemo frequently experience symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, constipation or diarrhea. Changes in nail enamel such as the appearance of dark or white lines as well as nails that grow more slowly and dry and discolored skin that is extra sensitive to the Sun. Fever and fatigue are also common side effects experienced by chemotherapy patients.

The most taxing side-effect related with chemo treatment is alopecia-a medical condition in which the hair falls out. This situation may not only affect certain areas of the body such as the scalp but may also extend to the face or limbs. Chemo patients may also develop painful mouth sores or may bruise easily. But most of these symptoms will vanish once chemo treatment is stopped. In some cases, side effects related to chemotherapy may not show until months or years after the treatment has ended. These effects may include heart, kidney problems, lung tissue damage or nerve damage. Chemo treatment may also lead to infertility. Though chemotherapy has been proven effective in the resolution of numerous types of cancer, there is always a risk that the cancer may re-emerge after treatment has ended.

Compiled by:- Chonmipem Horam

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