Chemotherapy for breast cancer

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1 Chemotherapy for breast cancer This information is an extract from the booklet Understanding breast cancer in women. You may find the full booklet helpful. We can send you a free copy see page 8. Contents When you have chemotherapy How you have chemotherapy The drugs used Side effects Contraception Sex Early menopause Infertility Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. Cytotoxic means toxic to cells. These drugs disrupt the way cancer cells grow and divide but they also affect normal cells. When you have chemotherapy Your cancer specialist may recommend you have chemotherapy after surgery to reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back. This is called adjuvant chemotherapy. Your doctor or nurse will explain the benefits of this to you and the likely side effects. You are usually offered chemotherapy if the cancer is: large high-grade (more likely to spread) has spread to the lymph nodes (glands) Questions about cancer? Ask Macmillan Page 1 of 8

2 triple negative HER2 positive. Your cancer specialist will tell you whether chemotherapy is suitable for you. Some women have chemotherapy before surgery to shrink a large cancer (neo-adjuvant treatment). If it works well, you may only need part of the breast removed instead of a mastectomy where the whole breast is removed. Women with inflammatory breast cancer, where cancer cells grow along and block the tiny channels (lymph vessels) in the skin of the breast, usually have chemotherapy before their surgery. Your cancer specialist may ask you to take part in a research trial that compares different types of chemotherapy. Cancer research trials are carried out to try to find new and better treatments for cancer. We have more information on research trials. How you have chemotherapy You usually have chemotherapy in the chemotherapy day unit and go home after it. The drugs are usually given into a vein (intravenously) and some are taken as tablets. When you have intravenous chemotherapy, the nurse will give you the drugs into a vein by injection or as a drip (infusion). You usually have them through a small tube (cannula) in your hand or arm. Sometimes they are given through a soft plastic tube called a central line or PICC line. These lines go into a large vein in your chest. Chemotherapy can also be given into a thin, soft plastic tube with a rubber disc (port), under the skin on your upper chest. We have information about lines and ports that you may find helpful. Chemotherapy is given into the vein as one or more sessions of treatment. Each session takes a few hours. After the session, you will have a rest period of a few weeks. The chemotherapy session and the rest period is called a cycle of treatment. Page 2 of 8 Questions about cancer? Ask Macmillan

3 The length of a cycle depends on the chemotherapy drugs you re taking, but most cycles are 1 3 weeks long. Your doctor or nurse will explain more about this. Most, but not all, courses of chemotherapy consist of six cycles. The drugs used You will have a combination of different chemotherapy drugs. Some commonly used combinations include: FEC fluorouracil (5FU), epirubicin and cyclophosphamide FEC-T FEC followed by docetaxel (Taxotere ) AC or EC doxorubicin (Adriamycin ) and cyclophosphamide or epirubicin and cyclophosphamide CMF cyclophosphamide, methotrexate and 5FU E-CMF epirubicin and CMF. Adjuvant chemotherapy for breast cancer usually includes an anthracycline drug, such as epirubicin or doxorubicin. If there is a higher risk of the cancer coming back, docetaxel is also usually included. Your doctor may offer you a choice of chemotherapy treatments. If you have HER2 breast cancer, you may have trastuzumab (Herceptin ) along with your chemotherapy. We have more information about trastuzumab and individual chemotherapy drugs and combinations. Questions about cancer? Ask Macmillan Page 3 of 8

4 Side effects Chemotherapy drugs can cause side effects. Many of these can be controlled well with medicines and will usually go away when your treatment finishes. Your doctor or nurse will tell you more about what to expect. Always tell them about your side effects, as there are usually ways in which they can be controlled. Risk of infection Chemotherapy can reduce your number of white blood cells, which help fight infection. If the number of white blood cells is low, you ll be more prone to infections. A low white blood cell count is called neutropenia. Always contact the hospital immediately on the 24-hour contact number you ve been given and speak to a nurse or doctor if: you develop a high temperature, which may be over 37.5 C (99.5 F) or over 38 C (100.4 F) depending on the hospital s policy follow the advice that you have been given by your chemotherapy team you suddenly feel unwell, even with a normal temperature you feel shivery and shaky you have any symptoms of an infection such as a cold, sore throat, cough, passing urine frequently (urine infection) or diarrhoea. If necessary, you ll be given antibiotics to treat an infection. You ll have a blood test before each cycle of chemotherapy to make sure your white blood cells have recovered. Occasionally, your treatment may need to be delayed if your number of white blood cells is still low. Your nurse may give you injections of a drug called G-CSF under the skin. It encourages the bone marrow (where blood cells are made) to make more white blood cells. Page 4 of 8 Questions about cancer? Ask Macmillan

5 Bruising and bleeding Chemotherapy can reduce the number of platelets in your blood. Platelets are cells that help the blood to clot. If you develop any unexplained bruising or bleeding such as nosebleeds, bleeding gums, blood spots or rashes on the skin, contact your doctor or the hospital straight away. Anaemia (low number of red blood cells) Chemotherapy may reduce the number of red bloods cells (haemoglobin) in your blood. A low level of red blood cells is known as anaemia, which can make you feel very tired and lethargic. You may also become breathless. Let your doctor know if you get these effects. Feeling sick (nausea) Some chemotherapy drugs can make you feel sick (nauseated) or possibly be sick (vomit). Your cancer specialist will prescribe anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs to prevent this. Let your doctor or nurse know if your anti-sickness drugs are not helping, as there are several different types you can try. We can send you more information about nausea and vomiting. Tiredness (fatigue) You re likely to become tired and have to take things more slowly. Try to pace yourself and save your energy for things that you want to do or that need doing. Balance rest with some physical activity. Even just going for a short walk will help increase your energy. We have information on coping with fatigue which has more helpful tips. Hair loss This is a common side effect of the drugs used to treat breast cancer. Ask your nurse what you should expect. Some women may lose all their body hair including eyelashes and eyebrows. If you do experience hair loss, your hair should start to grow back about 3 6 months after treatment. Your nurse can give you advice about coping with hair loss and how to look after your scalp. They will let you know if scalp cooling a way of reducing hair loss during chemotherapy would be appropriate. We can send you more information on coping with hair loss. Questions about cancer? Ask Macmillan Page 5 of 8

6 Loss of appetite Some people lose their appetite while they re having chemotherapy. This can be mild and may only last a few days. If you don t feel like eating during treatment, you could try replacing some meals with nutritious drinks or a soft diet. If it doesn t improve, you can ask to see a dietitian. Sore mouth Your mouth may become sore (or dry), or you may notice small ulcers during treatment. Drinking plenty of fluids, and cleaning your teeth regularly and gently with a soft toothbrush, can help to reduce the risk of this happening. Tell your nurse or doctor if you have any of these problems, as they can prescribe mouthwashes and medicine to prevent or clear mouth infections. Diarrhoea Some chemotherapy drugs can cause diarrhoea. This often starts several days after treatment. If you re taking chemotherapy tablets or capsules at home, it s important to let your doctor or nurse know if you have diarrhoea, as your treatment may need to be interrupted. Medicine can be prescribed to help. It s important to drink plenty of fluids if you have diarrhoea. Effects on the nerves Some chemotherapy drugs can affect the nerves in your hands or feet. This can cause tingling or numbness, a sensation of pins and needles or muscle weakness (peripheral neuropathy). It s important to let your doctor know if this happens. They may need to change the chemotherapy drug if it gets worse. Usually, peripheral neuropathy gradually gets better when chemotherapy is over, but sometimes it s permanent. We can send you more information about peripheral neuropathy. Side effects can be hard to deal with, but they usually disappear gradually when your treatment finishes. Page 6 of 8 Questions about cancer? Ask Macmillan

7 Contraception Your doctor will advise you not to get pregnant while having chemotherapy. This is because the drugs may harm an unborn baby. It s important to use effective contraception during your treatment. You will be advised not to use contraception that contains hormones such as the pill, or coils (intra-uterine devices) that release hormones. Coils that don t contain hormones or barrier methods, such as condoms or the cap, are usually the most suitable. Your breast care nurse can give you advice. Sex You re usually advised to use condoms if you have sex within the first 48 hours after chemotherapy. This is to protect your partner from the drugs in case they re present in the vaginal fluid. Early menopause Younger women may find chemotherapy brings on an early menopause, which can be difficult to cope with. We can send you more information about early menopause. Infertility If you re worried about the effect chemotherapy may have on your fertility, it s important to talk this over with your cancer specialist before treatment starts. Sometimes it may be possible to remove eggs from your ovaries before treatment. These can be fertilised with a partner s sperm, and the embryos (fertilised eggs) can be frozen and stored to use later. Women without a partner can have their eggs frozen and stored. Questions about cancer? Ask Macmillan Page 7 of 8

8 Becoming infertile can be very hard to live with, whether or not you already have children. Some women find it helpful to talk through their feelings with a trained counsellor. If you need more specialist help, ask your doctor or nurse to arrange this for you. We have more information on cancer treatment and fertility for women. More information and support More than one in three of us will get cancer. For most of us it will be the toughest fight we ever face. And the feelings of isolation and loneliness that so many people experience make it even harder. But you don t have to go through it alone. The Macmillan team is with you every step of the way. To order a copy of Understanding breast cancer in women or any other cancer information, visit be.macmillan.org.uk or call We make every effort to ensure that the information we provide is accurate and up to date but it should not be relied upon as a substitute for specialist professional advice tailored to your situation. So far as is permitted by law, Macmillan does not accept liability in relation to the use of any information contained in this publication, or thirdparty information or websites included or referred to in it. Macmillan Cancer Support Registered charity in England and Wales (261017), Scotland (SC039907) and the Isle of Man (604). Registered office 89 Albert Embankment, London, SE1 7UQ REVISED IN OCTOBER 2013 Planned review in 2016 Page 8 of 8 Questions about cancer? Ask Macmillan

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