Chemotherapy uses medicines that are toxic to cancer cells and that often kill the cancer cells. Usually these cancer-fighting drugs are given intravenously (injected into a vein) or as a pill by mouth. Either way, the drugs travel through the bloodstream to the entire body. Doctors who prescribe these drugs (medical oncologists) sometimes use only a single drug and other times use a combination of drugs.

When chemotherapy is given after surgery for early stage breast cancer, it is called adjuvant chemotherapy. Sometimes chemotherapy is given before surgery. This is called neoadjuvant chemotherapy. In most cases, adjuvant or neoadjuvant chemotherapy is most effective when combinations of drugs are used together. Chemotherapy may also be given to treat breast cancer that has spread to places other than the breast or lymph nodes. Both single drugs and combinations of drugs are often used in the treatment of breast cancer that has spread.

Below is a list of some common combinations of adjuvant chemotherapy drugs, divided into combinations for women with HER-2 positive tumors and HER-2 negative tumors.

Chemotherapy Drugs Commonly Used to Treat Breast Cancer

(generic brand in parenthesis)

  • Adriamycin (Doxorubicin)
  • Cytoxan (Cyclophosphamide)
  • Ellence (Epirubicin)
  • Navelbine (Vinorelbine)
  • Taxol (Paclitaxel)
  • Taxotere (Docetaxel)
  • Xeloda (Capecitabine)
  • Gemzar (Gemcitabine)

Doctors give chemotherapy in cycles, with each period of treatment followed by a rest period. The chemotherapy is given of the first day of each cycle, and then the body is given time to recover from the effects of chemotherapy. The chemotherapy drugs are then repeated to start the next cycle. The time between giving the chemotherapy drugs varies according to the specific chemotherapy drug or combination of drugs. Adjuvant chemotherapy usually lasts for a total time of 3 to 6 months depending on the drugs used.

The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the type of drugs used, the amount taken, and the length of treatment. Some women have many side effects while other women have few side effects.