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About chemotherapy for advanced cancer

Find out when, where and how you have chemotherapy for advanced breast cancer, and the possible side effects.

What chemotherapy is

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. The drugs circulate throughout the body in the bloodstream.

Aim of chemotherapy

Chemotherapy for advanced breast cancer can relieve symptoms. It can also control the cancer and improve your quality of life for a time, but it can’t cure the disease.

For some women treatment can control the cancer for many months or years.

Types of chemotherapy

In many situations, the chemotherapy drugs for advanced breast cancer are the same as those used for early breast cancer.

The chemotherapy drugs you have depend on:

  • what chemotherapy drugs you've had before
  • how well the cancer responded to those drugs
  • what side effects you had
  • your general health and fitness

Chemotherapy drugs that doctors often use for advanced breast cancer include:

  • docetaxel (Taxotere)
  • vinorelbine (Navelbine)
  • capecitabine (Xeloda)
  • paclitaxel (Taxol)
  • a type of paclitaxel called Abraxane
  • gemcitabine (Gemzar)
  • epirubicin (Pharmorubicin)
  • eribulin mesylate (Halaven)

You may have one drug or a combination of drugs, for example gemcitabine and paclitaxel, or capecitabine and docetaxel.

How you have chemotherapy

You usually have chemotherapy directly into your bloodstream through a drip. Some chemotherapy drugs are tablets or capsules that you swallow, such as capecitabine.

You have chemotherapy as cycles of treatment, often every 3 weeks. Your doctor will talk to you about your treatment plan.

Drugs into your bloodstream

You have the treatment through a drip into your arm. A nurse puts a small tube (a cannula) into one of your veins and connects the drip to it.

Or you may need a central line. This is a long plastic tube that gives the drugs into a large vein, either in your chest or through a vein in your arm. It stays in throughout your treatment.

Taking your tablets or capsules

You must take tablets and capsules according to the instructions your doctor or pharmacist gives you.

Whether you have a full or empty stomach can affect how much of a drug gets into your bloodstream.

You should take the right dose, not more or less.

Talk to your specialist or advice line before you stop taking a cancer drug.

Where you have chemotherapy

You usually have treatment into your bloodstream at the cancer day clinic. You might sit in a chair for a few hours so it’s a good idea to take newspapers, books or electronic devices to help to pass the time. You can usually bring a friend or family member with you.

You have some types of chemotherapy over several days. You might be able to have some drugs through a small portable pump that you take home.

For some types of chemotherapy you have to stay in a hospital ward. This could be overnight or for a couple of days.

Before you start chemotherapy

You need to have blood tests to make sure it’s safe to start treatment. You have these either a few days before or on the day you start treatment. You have blood tests before each round or cycle of treatment.

Your doctors and pharmacists work out your chemotherapy dose based on your blood cell levels, and your weight, height and general health.

Side effects

Common chemotherapy side effects include:

  • feeling sick
  • loss of appetite
  • losing weight
  • feeling very tired
  • a lower resistance to infections
  • bleeding and bruising easily
  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • hair loss
Contact your doctor or nurse immediately if you have any signs of infection such as a temperature higher than 37.5C or generally feeling unwell. Infections can make you very unwell very quickly.

Side effects depend on:

  • which drugs you have
  • how much of each drug you have
  • how you react

Tell your treatment team about any side effects that you have.

Chemotherapy for breast cancer can be difficult to cope with. Tell your doctor or nurse about any problems or side effects that you have. The nurse will give you telephone numbers to call if you have any problems at home.

Information and help

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About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.