Why it's done

Chemotherapy for breast cancer may be given in the following situations:

Chemotherapy after surgery for early breast cancer

After surgical removal of a tumor from a breast, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy to destroy any undetected cancer cells and to reduce your risk of the cancer recurring. This is known as adjuvant chemotherapy.

Your doctor may recommend adjuvant chemotherapy if you have a high risk of the cancer recurring or spreading to other parts of your body (metastasizing), even if there is no evidence of cancer after surgery. You may be at higher risk of metastasis if cancer cells are found in lymph nodes near the breast with the tumor.

When considering adjuvant chemotherapy, ask your doctor about how much the chemotherapy will reduce your chance of the cancer coming back. Together you can weigh this decrease in risk against the side effects of the chemotherapy. Also discuss with your doctor other alternatives, such as hormone-blocking therapy, that might be effective in your situation.

Chemotherapy before surgery for early breast cancer

Chemotherapy is sometimes used before surgery (neoadjuvant therapy) to shrink the tumor and allow the surgeon the best chance of removing the tumor completely. In some cases, neoadjuvant therapy allows the surgeon to remove only the tumor, rather than the entire breast. This can also decrease the chance the cancer will return at a later date.

Chemotherapy is typically recommended before an operation in cases of inflammatory breast cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer is a type of breast cancer that causes the affected breast to appear red and swollen.

Chemotherapy as the primary treatment for advanced breast cancer

If breast cancer has spread to other parts of your body, and surgery isn't an option, chemotherapy can be used as the primary treatment. It may also be used in conjunction with hormone therapy or targeted therapy, depending on the type of breast cancer you have.

The main goal of chemotherapy for advanced breast cancer is generally to improve quality and length of life rather than to cure the disease.