Chemotherapy can be used in early breast cancer together with surgery to help reduce the risk of the cancer coming back. It is also used in patients with metastases to prolong their life and/or reduce symptoms.
Even if the breast cancer and lymph nodes have been removed, there is a chance tumour cells were released into the general circulation, or may remain in the breast or armpit. These cells are too small to detect with CT scans or ultrasounds, but can grow in the future into tumour deposits or metastases.
Chemotherapy is a systemic or whole body treatment which is most commonly given as an infusion into the blood. When given for early breast cancer, it can neutralise any of these cells which have escaped, and therefore prevent cancer recurrence or metastases.
It targets cells which are rapidly dividing which is most importantly the cancerous cells, but there can be collateral damage to normal cells also. This can cause many of the side effects of chemotherapy. Some patients will have no side effects, others are severely affected. Modern oncologists are very clever in giving medication to lessen the side effects however problems still occur in some patients.
Chemotherapy is not recommended for everyone. It depends on many factors including – the size of your tumour, the number of involved lymph nodes, the hormone receptor status, your age and other health problems. If recommended you will be referred to a medical oncologist who will discuss with you the risks of your treatment as well as quantify the benefit in terms of cancer control. From this you can make an educated decision about your treatment
Herceptin (trastuzumab) is a targeted cancer therapy given to women with HER2 positive breast cancer. It is very different from normal chemotherapy because it is targeted, causing less collateral damage and therefore, less side effects.
Treatment is given into a vein and usually lasts for one year. There is a rare risk of heart problems with the drug, so this is routinely monitored during treatment