If the results of any biopsy taken indicate that the lump found in a patient’s breast is cancerous, it is important to realize that there are a number of options present to this patient depending on the point at which the cancer is found. Depending on the stage in which the cancer is found, chemotherapy may be one such option, both before and after surgery to remove a cancerous lump. If the cancer is found in an earlier stage of development, it may be removed in a process known as a lumpectomy, which removes the cancerous area of the breast along with some healthy tissue surrounding the lump to create “clear margins” of removal. Despite clearing these margins, specialists may still prescribe chemotherapy as a post-surgical measure, which ensures that any small remaining amounts of cancer cells are killed completely. If the cancerous lump is found in a later stage and is larger in size, chemotherapy may be used prior to surgery in order to shrink the mass as much as possible, allowing the surgeon to remove a smaller portion of the breast overall if the patient is worried about aesthetics following surgery.
Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment, meaning that the drug travels through the entire body during treatment, not just in the area of the breast lump. This aspect of the treatment has some pros and cons. Chemotherapy works by attacking cells in the body that are rapidly reproducing, such as cancer cells. However, this also means that other rapidly reproducing cells, such as those in the hair and nails, can also be affected, which causes the loss of hair characteristic of those patients that are undergoing treatment. On the other hand, this systemic influence of the drug means that if any cancer cells have begun to spread to other parts of the body, they will be found and killed by the chemo drugs, meaning that the chance of the cancer recurring becomes much lower.
Additionally, it is important to be aware of the weakening of the body’s immune system when undergoing chemotherapy due to low white blood cell counts. White blood cells can be found in the body’s lymph system, which is responsible for transporting fluids and organic compounds found naturally in the body. Cancer cells are known to use the lymph system as a method for spreading throughout the body, and so chemotherapy frequently targets the lymph system and its concentrated areas, known as lymph nodes, in order to kill any cancer cells that may have spread from the original tumor. As white blood cells are also found here, they frequently succumb to the effects of the chemotherapy drugs along with any cancer cells, meaning that the body’s immune response to less dangerous bacteria and viruses is weakened considerably. As such, patients undergoing chemotherapy should avoid crowded public places in which disease can spread easily from person to person, along with any friends or family members that are or have recently been sick. This includes the most common illnesses, such as the common cold or a sore throat.
Most patients are given a combination of different chemotherapy drugs, known as a chemotherapy regimen, which is determined by their specialist according to the stage of the breast cancer and the patient’s general health and menopausal status. These drugs may be given intravenously, by mouth in a pill form, or through a port that can be inserted into the chest in a quick medical procedure. Due to the wide variety of possible regimens and the various types of cancer, there are many possible outcomes regarding side effects of the treatment. As stated before, hair loss and nail problems are possible when being treated with chemotherapy, but there are a number of other possible side effects for patients such as fatigue, neuropathy, vomiting, and diarrhea. Some of these symptoms will simply subside after the conclusion of the chemotherapy regimen, but there are others that may be alleviated throughout treatment if the patient informs their physician about these side effects as they are happening.