Breast Chemotherapy

Charles A. Padgett, MD, chief of medical oncology at MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital, consults with a chemotherapy patient.

Chemotherapy drugs are given to stop the growth of cancer cells in your breast, as well as kill any cancer cells that have could have spread beyond the breast. These drugs are usually delivered after surgery, but also can be used to shrink tumors before surgery to make them operable or allow for breast-conserving surgery.

We offer the latest FDA-approved drugs and combinations and continue to refine and develop the best treatment protocols. When appropriate, patients also have access to clinical research trials that explore new therapies.

These drugs can be administered in several ways including

  • Injections
  • Intravenously (IV into the veins)
  • Pills
  • Injections into the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord or brain

Unlike surgery, which targets a specific area of the body, chemotherapy is considered a systemic treatment because the medicine travels into the entire body. Depending on your situation, chemotherapy can be used for

  • Eliminating cancer: primary, or even the sole treatment for cancer.
  • Supporting other treatments: shrink a tumor before radiation or surgery or after other treatments to kill any remaining cancer cells.
  • Minimizing cancer: keep cancer from spreading to other parts of the body.
  • Palliative treatment: relieve symptoms of cancer when the cancer is too advanced to be cured.

As with any treatment, you and your doctor will discuss the best course of action for you, where you will receive chemotherapy, and for how long. You should also know that MedStar Health is staffed with chemotherapy nurses and volunteers who can explain many of the parts of chemotherapy treatment.


Several types of chemotherapy exist, and our medical oncologists work with you to determine the best treatment. Generally, you receive chemotherapy intravenously (through your veins), but sometimes you can also take a pill.

There are three potential applications of chemotherapy during treatment:

  • Neoadjuvant: Neoadjuvant chemotherapy is given before surgery. Your team of doctors may recommend a neoadjuvant approach for a number of possible reasons.

    • Provide more options: Your breast surgeon may recommend shrinking the tumor before surgery to make you a candidate for breast-conserving surgery (lumpectomy, i.e., partial mastectomy).

    • Make the tumor operable: In some instances, the tumor involves the skin or the underlying chest muscles. The chemotherapy may shrink the tumor or result in an improvement in the skin changes, making you a candidate for surgery.

    • See if the tumor will respond: We track how the tumor reacts to different chemotherapy agents or other drugs, allowing a more individualized or tailored approach to treatment. This may also involve clinical trials of new drugs or approaches to treatment.

  • Adjuvant: Adjuvant refers to chemotherapy that is given after surgery. It is designed to prevent cancer from returning (recurring), particularly in other parts of your body.

  • Metastatic Therapy: When breast cancer cells have spread outside the breast, chemotherapy may be given to help slow the progression of the cancer or to improve some of the symptoms associated with the cancer.

Side Effects

While chemotherapy kills cancer cells, it can also affect healthy cells in your body and cause a variety of side effects. Fortunately, with new medications, these complications are now much better controlled. Your medical oncologist will discuss the side effects associated with your specific type of chemotherapy.

Depending on the kind of drug you are taking, side effects may include:

  • Anemia
  • Dry mouth, mouth sores, or swelling in mouth
  • Hair loss
  • Higher risk of infection
  • Fatigue
  • Excessive bleeding
  • Pain from nerve damage
  • Poor appetite and weight loss
  • Upset stomach, vomiting, and diarrhea

Most of these side effects disappear with time. Remember that the side effects that you experience depend on the type of cancer, the type of drugs used, and your unique health and other circumstances. Managing your side effects is a top priority at MedStar Health. Your healthcare team will discuss with you how you can manage side effects to maintain a high quality of life.

Learn more about chemotherapy-induced anemia in the educational video below:

Outpatient Chemotherapy

Sometimes, instead of needing to be hospitalized for cancer treatment (known as inpatient treatment), you are able to come to the hospital, receive your treatment, and leave that same day. This is called outpatient treatment.

Outpatient treatment takes place in our infusion centers, which are world-class cancer treatment facilities located in a community environment. Each time you arrive, our nurses will weigh and measure you — your dose of medication is based on your weight and height, so it is important that the numbers be exact. Our pharmacists prepare your dose carefully, and our chemotherapy-certified nurses administer the dosage. The staff will monitor you closely during treatment because your immune system is especially sensitive during this time.

MedStar Health outpatient chemotherapy centers provide:

  • Multidisciplinary teams of oncologists
  • Consultations and second opinions
  • Cancer treatments focused on individual needs
  • Outstanding clinical trials program
  • Patient- and family-support services
  • Cancer support groups
  • Compassionate, oncology certified nursing teams
  • Convenient locations with easy access and parking
  • Flexible scheduling
  • Private and relaxing environment

Please note: Not every patient can receive outpatient treatment at an infusion center. Depending on the type of chemotherapy you need, your doctor may recommend other alternatives.

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Oncologist giving IV Drip Treatment to Cancer Patient

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