What you can expect

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Timing and frequency of chemotherapy sessions

Chemotherapy for breast cancer is given in cycles. The cycle for chemotherapy can vary from once a week to once every three weeks.

Typically, you'll undergo chemotherapy treatments for three to four months, but your doctor will adjust the timing to your circumstances. If you have advanced breast cancer, treatment may continue beyond six months.

Common drug combinations

There's an array of chemotherapy drugs available. Because each person is different, doctors tailor certain types and doses of medications (regimens) — often a combination of chemotherapy drugs — to the type of breast cancer and the person's medical history.

Where chemotherapy is given

Most breast cancer chemotherapy sessions take place at one of these places: a doctor's office or an outpatient unit in a hospital or clinic.

How chemotherapy is given

Chemotherapy drugs can be given in a variety of ways, including pills you take at home. Most often they're injected into a vein (IV). This can be done through:

  • An IV needle and tube (catheter) in your hand or wrist.
  • A catheter port implanted in your chest before beginning chemotherapy. This port stays in place for the duration of your chemotherapy treatment and eliminates the need to find a suitable vein at each treatment session.

A typical chemotherapy session

Not all chemotherapy sessions are alike, but a session might follow this order:

  • You meet with the health care provider who's administering your chemotherapy.
  • You undergo a brief physical exam to check temperature, pulse and blood pressure.
  • You have the IV catheter inserted.
  • You have a blood sample drawn for a blood count and other blood tests.
  • You meet with your doctor to review your blood test results and assess your overall health.
  • Your doctor orders the chemotherapy.
  • You receive medications to prevent side effects such as nausea, anxiety or inflammation.
  • You receive the chemotherapy drugs. This may take up to several hours.

After a chemotherapy session

Following a chemotherapy session, you may:

  • Have your catheter removed.
  • Have your vital signs checked.
  • Review side effects with your health care provider.
  • Receive prescriptions for medications you can take at home to help with side effects.
  • Be advised to drink a lot of fluids.
  • Receive instructions on proper handling of bodily fluids, such as urine, stool, vomit, semen and vaginal secretions, as these may contain some of the chemotherapy drugs for the next 48 hours. This may simply involve flushing the toilet twice after use.

Some people feel fine after a chemotherapy session and can return to their schedules, but others may feel side effects more quickly. You may want to arrange for someone to drive you home afterward, at least for the first few sessions, until you see how you feel.

During the course of chemotherapy

After a few sessions, you may be able to predict more accurately when you'll feel fine and when you may need to cut back on activities. Marking your calendar or keeping a journal may help you track your general response to chemotherapy sessions and help you plan events accordingly.

Following your treatment plan closely is the best way to get the most benefit from your chemotherapy. If side effects become too bothersome, discuss them with your doctor. He or she may be able to adjust the dose or type of chemotherapy medication you're receiving or prescribe other medications to help minimize side effects.

Mar. 20, 2014