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What Happens During Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer

What happens during chemotherapy depends on the type of drug or drugs you take.

Where you have chemotherapy

Most people get chemotherapy in an outpatient part of the hospital, at the doctor’s office, in an infusion clinic, or, rarely, at home. However, depending on the drugs you’re taking, your health, and your health insurance coverage, you may need to stay in the hospital to get chemotherapy.

You will be watched for reactions during your treatments. Since each of your treatments may last for a while, you may want to take along something that is comforting to you, such as your favorite music. You may also want to bring something to keep you busy, such as a deck of cards or a book. 

How you take chemotherapy drugs

Your doctor has several ways to give you chemotherapy drugs:

  • Intravenous (IV) drip. In this case, a bag filled with medicine drips through a tube into a small catheter that's put into your vein. Another choice for this is a semipermanent kind of IV called a vascular access device (VAD). Some examples of VADs are portacaths, PICC lines, and Hickman catheters. These are cases where a VAD might be used:

    • If you get frequent IVs

    • If your veins are hard to find

    • If you are taking more than one drug by IV

  • Oral. You swallow these drugs as pills.

  • Injection. You get these drugs through a needle into a vein, muscle, or under the skin. 

You typically take chemotherapy in cycles over a period of time. That means you take the drugs once, followed by a few weeks off. This schedule may continue for four to eight cycles. The length of your cycles depends on the stage of your cancer and the type of treatment you are getting. Having chemotherapy in cycles helps in several ways:

  • It allows the drugs to kill more cancer cells because not all of the cells are dividing at the same time.

  • It allows your body to rest from the chemotherapy. Treatment damages rapidly dividing normal cells, too, like mucous membranes and bone marrow cells (and the cells in your hair follicles). The time off between doses gives these cells time to recover.

  • It gives you an emotional break between treatments.

Common types of chemotherapy drugs used for breast cancer

When you have breast cancer and take chemotherapy, you usually need more than one drug. This reduces the chance that your cancer will develop a resistance to one drug and improves the chance of successful treatment.

These are some of the drugs that are commonly used to treat breast cancer:

  • Adriamycin (doxorubicin)

  • Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide)

  • 5FU (fluorouracil) 

  • Epirubicin (Ellence)  

  • Taxotere (docetaxel)

  • Taxol (paclitaxel)  

  • Carboplatin 

You may also be given other drugs during chemotherapy. These help the chemotherapy drugs work better or help fight side effects.