What is adjuvant chemotherapy?

Adjuvant chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that combines different healing therapies to maximize benefit for the patient. Depending on the type of cancer, what stage the cancer is in and your overall health, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy in combination with radiation, surgery, hormone therapy, immunotherapy or targeted therapy. Typically, chemotherapy is used after radiation and/or surgery.

The goal of adjuvant chemotherapy is to eliminate any remaining cancer cells that are not detected and may have traveled to other parts of the body. Adjuvant chemotherapy reduces the risk of a recurrence in high-risk patients.

What types of cancer is adjuvant chemotherapy used for?

Adjuvant chemotherapy is mainly used for cancers in the following body parts:

  • Breast
  • Colon
  • Testes
  • Ovaries
  • Lymph nodes
  • Lungs 
  • Pancreas

Depending on the type of cancer, adjuvant chemotherapy will begin three to five weeks after surgery to remove the cancerous tissue. Chemotherapy treatment length will vary based on the type of cancer you have. Patients with breast cancer may have adjuvant chemotherapy for as long as nine months, while patients with colon cancer may only need six months.

Who is a candidate for adjuvant chemotherapy? 

Your Mercy Health cancer care team will evaluate your case to determine if you are a candidate for adjuvant chemotherapy. The team will determine if the benefits of receiving treatment outweighs the survival rate without adjuvant chemotherapy.

Factors your doctor will consider before making a treatment recommendation include:

  • Evaluate your overall health — if you are otherwise healthy, you are more likely to benefit from adjuvant chemotherapy for breast cancer.
  • Likelihood of your cancer recurring — if you have a type of cancer that is likely to recur, your doctor may strongly recommend adjuvant chemotherapy.
  • How you respond to treatment — if your doctor thinks you can tolerate the side effects associated with chemotherapy, he or she is more likely to recommend adjuvant chemotherapy as a part of your breast cancer treatment plan.

Adjuvant chemotherapy for breast cancer

Adjuvant chemotherapy is commonly used for breast cancer when:

  • Cells have migrated to the lymph nodes and are found during breast cancer tumor removal surgery
  • There is a large tumor that has metastasized
  • The tumor has negative hormone receptors
  • The pathology suggests an aggressive tumor 

When successful, adjuvant chemotherapy reduces the risk of breast cancer recurrence by 35 percent for women under 50 and by 20 percent in women over 50 years old.

How successful is adjuvant chemotherapy?

There are a variety of factors in play when evaluating the potential success of adjuvant chemotherapy for breast cancer treatment. 

Factors include:

Stage of breast cancer 

If you are in an early stage where the cancer has not spread, adjuvant chemotherapy may not be necessary. If you are in a later stage where the cancer has spread to other body parts or the lymph nodes, adjuvant therapy may be more successful.

How far the cancer has spread into the lymph nodes

If the cancer has spread into the lymph nodes, more cells are likely to be left after breast cancer surgery. Therefore, adjuvant chemotherapy is more likely to be successful

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