The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on June 15, 2021.

Chemotherapy for breast cancer

Chemotherapy uses drugs that attack and kill cancer cells or slow their division and growth. Chemotherapy drugs for breast cancer may be given in pill form or by injection or infusion and are often used in combination with other cancer treatments, such as surgery, radiation therapy or targeted therapy.

Neoadjuvant (or primary systemic) breast cancer chemotherapy is used before surgery to reduce the size of large breast tumors and to destroy cancer cells. This type of chemotherapy often makes breast-conserving surgery possible. It also helps our cancer doctors determine the effect a particular regimen is having on the breast tumor.

Adjuvant breast cancer chemotherapy is used after surgery or radiation therapy to eliminate remaining cancer cells that may not have been removed during breast cancer surgery and/or radiation therapy. It also may prevent the disease from spreading to other parts of the body.

The type of chemotherapy drug used, and when it is used in combination with other treatments, depends on the individual patient, the type of breast cancer and its stage.

Learn more about adjuvant and neoadjuvant cancer treatments

Side effects of chemotherapy

Chemotherapy drugs attack fast-growing cells throughout the body, including cancer cells. But some normal cells in the body also grow quickly and may also be attacked by chemotherapy drugs. Those cells include:

  • Immune cells and those found in bone marrow
  • Cells found in the digestive system
  • Hair follicle cells

When chemotherapy attacks these normal, healthy cells, it may cause side effects, such as:

Side effects of chemotherapy vary depending on the patient, the drug(s)used and the dosage. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), your care team will be as proactive as possible in anticipating and combating side effects so you can better tolerate your breast cancer chemotherapy treatments. Your care team may also offer a combination of supportive care services, based on your individual needs, to help you manage side effects. Nutritional therapy, naturopathic support, mind-body medicine and other services may help to reduce chemotherapy-related symptoms so you can continue to participate in the activities you enjoy.