University of California San Francisco
Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center


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Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. For breast cancer, chemotherapy is usually a combination of drugs. The drugs may be given by mouth or by injection. Either way, chemotherapy is a systemic therapy because the drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body.

Your oncologist will recommend a treatment plan according to your individual case. The treatment will depend on your age, whether or not you are still having your periods, the risk for spread or recurrence, and your general health. The drugs you take will depend on the type and stage of cancer, where it is located, how much or how fast it has grown, and how it is affecting you.

Chemotherapy is used to:

  • Decrease the chances that cancer will come back after breast cancer surgery.
  • Shrink breast cancer before surgery, when the tumor is large or it is inflammatory cancer.
  • Control the disease when breast cancer is found in the lungs, bones, liver, brain, or other parts of the body.

Chemotherapy drugs travel throughout the body to slow the growth of cancer cells or kill them. Often, the drugs are injected into the bloodstream through an intravenous (IV) needle that is inserted into a vein. Some drugs are given as pills. Treatment can be as short as a few months or as long as two (2) years.

Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles during which you have treatment for a period of time, and then you have a few weeks to recover before your next treatment. Depending on the drugs you take, you may have your chemotherapy at home, in your doctor's office, in a clinic, in a hospital's outpatient department, or in a hospital. How often and how long you have chemotherapy will depend on the type and stage of breast cancer, the drugs that are used and how your body responds to them, and the goals of the treatment. You should follow the schedule prescribed by your doctor.

Throughout chemotherapy, your oncologist and nurse will watch how you respond to the therapy. You will have frequent physical exams and blood tests. You should check with your doctor before taking any other medications during your treatment.

Chemotherapy affects all fast-growing cells throughout the body. Therefore, in addition to killing cancer cells, it also kills fast-growing normal cells. This may cause side effects such as hair loss, mouth sores, and fatigue.

Chemotherapy for the Newly Diagnosed

We recognize that your recent diagnosis of breast cancer may result in an emotionally challenging and difficult time. There is new information to be understood, decisions to be made, doctors appointments to schedule and keep, opinions to gather and compare, and treatment, work and family schedules to be planned. There may be difficult or complex decisions about who to tell about your diagnosis; and people who care for you may have their own responses to your breast cancer. Decision making about chemotherapy is often stressful. People who have been through treatment have taught us that emotional support and information about what to expect can be helpful. They report that once you have weathered the decisions and have begun therapy, life may begin to settle down. This information in this section is intended as a chemotherapy roadmap. Please ask us questions and report any concerns to us.

Chemotherapy is an individual experience

Chemotherapy to treat breast cancer is tailored to your medical needs. It is given in many different situations including following surgery (adjuvant chemotherapy) to lower the risk of future recurrence or spread of breast cancer. It can also be given before surgery (neoadjuvant therapy) to shrink the tumor before it is removed. It is also used to treat people who have metastatic breast cancer to control the growth and further spread of cancer. Several different types of chemotherapy drugs and combinations are used depending on the specific clinical situation. You and your medical oncologist will discuss which drugs are appropriate for your situation. Side effects vary with the different chemotherapy drugs.

It is important to realize that every woman experiences chemotherapy differently, both physically and emotionally.
It is difficult to predict your individual responses. We are committed to supporting your medical, educational and emotional needs during treatment, by listening to your concerns and answering your questions. We will also offer you resources within the Cancer Center and within the community to better meet your needs.

Before Starting Chemotherapy

Before starting chemotherapy we suggest that you take care of some of your basic health care needs. If time permits, we suggest that you have your teeth cleaned. If you need major dental work, try to postpone it until after chemotherapy. If you need your teeth cleaned while receiving chemotherapy, please let your practitioner know beforehand. If you haven't seen a gynecologist or had a pap smear in the last year, now might be the time. You should consider getting a flu shot if it is available. Please discuss any concerns with your practitioner.

Emotional Support

We suggest that if possible, you arrange for a family member, friend, or support person to accompany you to your chemotherapy sessions. If possible, choose someone with whom you feel comfortable and trust. You need support, not additional worry.

We recognize that cancer has an impact on you as a whole person and also on your family and loved ones. To varying degrees, all women with breast cancer struggle with the challenges of coping and adjusting to these life changes. At the Breast Care Center, we try to care for your emotional needs throughout the process of diagnosis, treatment and recovery. We want to be aware of your personal needs and concerns so that we can be more responsive to them in the months ahead. The Cancer Center psychologist is available for consultation with a referral from your provider. If you have practical support needs at home, we may make a social work referral as well. We also have other support services, such as the Peer Support Program, support groups, Art for Recovery, and yoga and exercise classes that are available to all cancer patients. To obtain more information please stop by the Ida and Joseph Friend Cancer Resource Center located on the first floor of 1600 Divisadero Street, behind the Friend to Friend shop.

Nutrition Consultations

We are fortunate to have a skilled nutritionist on our staff. The nutritionist is available for a consultation to address questions you may have about food, eating and nourishment. For appointments and availability, visit the Nutritional Counseling page on the Cancer Resource Center website.