Experts agree that for most breast cancer cases, chemotherapy is not the first treatment of choice. But for those for whom it is appropriate, it can provide effective, long term results.
Chemotherapy consists of using drugs to combat cancer. With the increasing sophistication of pharmacology, those drugs are safer, more effective and more targeted, with fewer side effects than ones of the past. Today, it’s common to use a drug ‘cocktail’ in order to offset side effects and provide a more effective treatment.
The drugs used typically interfere with the cells’ ability to divide, since that is one of the chief characteristics of cancers, an uncontrolled growth from abnormal cell division in breast cancer tissue.
Chemotherapy is often chosen when the cancer has become more advanced, requiring more a rigorous response to eradicate cancer cells. Cancer cells clumps can grow and metastasize (spread of a primary tumor to other areas, forming secondary tumors of similar type). That condition may indicate that chemotherapy is an appropriate regimen.
Cancers can recur. The causes are still poorly understood. In some cases it may be that the initial cancer wasn’t entirely eradicated. Or, it may be that the underlying cause that generated the tumor is still present and active, causing the cancer to regenerate. But whatever the basic reason, chemotherapy is often used in such cases.
But one of the more serious complications with chemotherapy treatments is related to its side effects. Though the drugs are improving in this regard, chemotherapy treatments sometimes affect healthy cells as well as cancerous ones. That results in healthy systems being harmed and lessened in function.
Since some of that function is to fight disease such as the cancer itself, a double harm occurs. Radiation therapy has a similar drawback in that it compromises the immune system, which is part of what helps to fight the cancer and its effects.
The digestive system is often affected in negative ways, leading to nausea, common among those undergoing chemotherapy treatments. Hair loss is a by-now familiar effect. But chemotherapy can even affect the composition of bone marrow, which leads to a number of harmful effects. Bone marrow performs several functions in the body. Foremost among them is aiding in the production of red and white blood cells.
Damage to heart, kidney and other organs is possible, though this is uncommon since cells in these organs don’t divide as frequently under natural circumstances. In some studies, memory and concentration loss were associated with chemotherapy treatments. Older female patients often find the reproductive cycle altered, bringing on premature menopause. ‘Female patients’ is specified here since men, too, can contract breast cancer.
Still, drugs in use today are better tolerated and more targeted that those of previous generations. They may help cut off vessels that supply blood to the tumors which encourage the growth of just such vessels to feed themselves. There are a variety of chemotherapy regimens, with each one designed for the individual patient and his or her circumstances.
Though never pleasant, chemotherapy provides an important tool in the fight against what was once an almost always fatal disease. Today, long term survivability is greater than ever with fewer long-term side effects. Chemotherapy is one of the reasons.