Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer drugs to treat cancerous cells. Chemotherapy reaches all part of the body, not just the cancer cells. The oncologist will recommend a treatment plan for each individual. Specific treatment for breast cancer will be based on:

  • Your age, overall health and medical history.
  • Whether you are menstruating.
  • Type and stage of cancer.
  • Your tolerance for specific medications and procedures.
  • Expectations for the course of the disease.
  • Your opinion or preference.

The oncologist also will determine how long and how often you will have chemotherapy treatments. Chemotherapy can be administered intravenously (in a vein) or by pill, and is usually a combination of drugs. Chemotherapy treatments are often given in cycles: a treatment period, followed by a recovery period, followed by another treatment period. Chemotherapy may be given in a variety of settings including a patient’s home, a hospital outpatient facility, a physician’s office or clinic, or in a hospital.

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What are the different types of chemotherapy drugs commonly used for breast cancer treatment and their potential side effects?

As each person’s individual medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his/her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team any/all possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins. Most side effects disappear once treatment is stopped.

  • Doxorubicin (Adriamycin)
    Doxorubicin (Adriamycin) is an intravenous medication. Doxorubicin is red in color, and it turns urine red for several hours following treatment. Women who receive doxorubicin often experience mouth sores and hair loss. This drug is most often given with cyclophosphamide. This drug combination is referred to as “AC.” Four to six cycles of treatment over three to six months are commonly administered for breast cancer.
  • Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan)
    Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) is an anticancer drug that can be given either intravenously or orally in tablet form. The intravenous drug is clear. Cyclophosphamide can cause irritation of the lining of the urinary bladder and often nausea and vomiting. This drug is most often given with doxorubicin. This drug combination is referred to as “AC.” Four to six cycles of treatment over three to six months are commonly administered for breast cancer.
  • Methotrexate (Folex, Mexate, Amethopterin)
    Methotrexate is an anticancer drug that is usually given intravenously for women with breast cancer. The drug is yellow in color. Some women who receive methotrexate experience mouth sores following treatment. This drug is most often given with both cyclophosphamide and fluouracil. This drug combination is referred to as “CMF.” Four to six cycles of treatment over three to six months are commonly given for breast cancer.
  • Fluorouracil (5FU)
    Fluorouracil (5FU) is an anticancer drug that is given intravenously. The intravenous drug is clear. For some women, fluorouracil can cause mouth sores and diarrhea. This drug is most often given with both cyclophosphamide and methotrexate. This drug combination is referred to as “CMF.” Four to six cycles of treatment over three to six months are commonly given for breast cancer.
  • Herceptin
  • Epirubicin
  • Taxal
  • Taxotere
  • Xeloda