Chemotherapy uses anticancer drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy for breast cancer usually involves a combination of drugs. The drugs may be given as a pill or by injection into a vein (IV). Either way, the drugs enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body. Some women need to stay in the hospital during treatment.
Side effects depend mainly on the specific drugs and the dose. The drugs affect cancer cells and other cells that divide rapidly:
- Blood cells These cells fight infection, help your blood to clot, and carry oxygen to all parts of the body. When drugs affect your blood cells, you are more likely to get infections, bruise or bleed easily, and feel very weak and tired. Years after chemotherapy, some women develop leukemia (cancer of the blood cells).
- Cells in hair roots Chemotherapy can cause hair loss. Your hair will grow back, but it may be somewhat different in color and texture.
- Cells that line the digestive tract Chemotherapy can cause poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth and lip sores.
Your doctor can suggest ways to control many of these side effects.
Some drugs used for breast cancer can cause tingling or numbness in the hands or feet. This problem usually goes away after treatment is over. Other problems may be more permanent. In some women, the drugs used for breast cancer may weaken the heart.
Some anticancer drugs can damage the ovaries, causing them to stop producing hormones. You may have symptoms of menopause. The symptoms include hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Your menstrual periods may no longer be regular or may stop. Some women become infertile and for women over the age of 35, the infertility is likely to be permanent.
On the other hand, you may remain fertile during chemotherapy and be able to become pregnant. The effects of chemotherapy on an unborn child are not known. You should talk to your doctor about birth control before treatment begins.