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What is Adjuvant Chemotherapy?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 30 December 2019
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Adjuvant chemotherapy is chemotherapy treatment which is given to reduce the risk that a cancer will recur. It is given after the primary cancer treatment is complete. Two cancers which are commonly treated with adjuvant therapy are colon and breast cancer, because both have a high risk of recurrence and doctors like to work to lower that risk so that their patients have a better chance. Using adjuvant chemotherapy can give patients a much better prognosis than focusing on primary treatment alone.

This chemotherapy is classically given after surgery. During surgery, the cancerous cells are removed, and the surgeon usually removes margins of healthy tissue with the goal of getting as many of the cancer cells out as possible. However, even a meticulous surgeon can miss a few cancer cells, because the cells are so small. Adjuvant chemotherapy is used to essentially mop up after the surgery, catching and killing stray cancer cells before they have an opportunity to start growing.

An oncologist may also sometimes recommend neoadjuvant chemotherapy. In this case, chemotherapy medications are given before surgery takes place with the goal of shrinking the tumor. This may be done when a surgeon feels that a tumor would be difficult to operate on, or when the size of a tumor could endanger a patient during surgery. By shrinking the tumor, the medical team can make the surgery less invasive, and reduce the risk of complications.

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Adjuvant chemotherapy can be delivered in the form of pills, liquids, or intravenous infusions. It may be accompanied with adjuvant radiotherapy and other treatments which are designed to limit the possibility that the cancer will recur. The treatment often makes the patient feel poorly, and may necessitate missed time from work and other temporary lifestyle changes. However, the costs of the treatment are deemed worth the benefits, as the survival rate for many cancers is better with adjuvant chemotherapy.

When a treatment plan for cancer is discussed, patients should talk about all of the options and the consequences of potential choices with their doctors and weigh this information when deciding which treatment to pursue. It can be helpful to talk to several oncologists, surgeons, and other medical professionals to gain a complete understanding of the prognosis, what will happen during treatment, and what kind of lifestyle changes the patient will need to make. It is also often helpful to contact a cancer resource center to connect with other patients for support and advice.

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