For the media

How preventive chemotherapy helps reduce cancer risk

By The Health News Team | April 16, 2024
Two friends hugging in a park

Preventive chemotherapy is getting lots of attention these days after the worldwide announcement that Kate Middleton, Princess of Wales, has cancer.

In an emotional video, the British royal shared the news that doctors discovered cancer in her body after abdominal surgery for what was supposed to be a noncancerous condition. Her medical team then recommended that she undergo something called preventive chemotherapy. Most people are familiar with chemotherapy, a common treatment for many types of cancer. But what is preventive chemotherapy? According to Dr. Reema Batra, a board-certified medical oncologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, the medical term used for preventive chemotherapy is “adjuvant chemotherapy.”

“Adjuvant chemotherapy is a preventive measure that targets microscopic cancer cells that still may be lingering inside your body after surgery,” Dr. Batra says. “The primary goal of the therapy is to lower the risk of cancer reoccurring.” Like traditional chemotherapy, preventive chemotherapy is administered through an IV or in a pill form.

Personal experience combined with extraordinary care

Dr. Batra knows about preventive interventions firsthand — not just because she’s an oncologist but also because she’s a cancer survivor. In December 2020, she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45. The median age for the disease diagnosis is 62.

Over the last three decades, for reasons that are not quite clear, cancer rates worldwide have been steadily rising in younger adults for breast, colon, lung and a range of other cancers. Case in point: Kate Middleton is only 42 years old. Dr. Batra avoided chemotherapy when treated for her cancer but received 18 rounds of radiation therapy. Now cancer free, she still takes preventive medication. “It’s a precaution that keeps the cancer from coming back, and it’s a small price to pay for my life,” she says.

Top 3 questions about preventive cancer

With preventive chemotherapy being highlighted in recent news stories around the globe, Dr. Batra knows many are asking questions about the treatment. Here, she answers three common questions:


When might preventive chemotherapy be recommended?

Depending on the type of cancer a patient has and their primary or initial treatment, a provider may recommend preventive chemotherapy if:

  • A person was diagnosed or treated in an early stage, and there is research to support that preventive therapy may reduce the chance that cancer may recur.

  • A person was diagnosed and treated at a later stage and may be more likely to have some residual cancer cells even after completing treatment.

Dr. Batra says it’s important to keep in mind that preventive chemotherapy is no guarantee of protection from developing cancer in the future. But along with a healthy lifestyle — eating right, exercising, abstaining from tobacco and seeing your cancer team for follow-up visits — it can reduce risk.


Does preventive chemotherapy cause any side effects?

Traditional or standard chemotherapy uses powerful drugs that are cytotoxic, meaning they can kill tumor cells. Although adjuvant chemotherapy is preventive and may differ in duration and intensity, the same drugs are used. Therefore, Dr. Batra says a patient would have the same side effects as someone undergoing chemotherapy, which could include:

  • Nausea

  • Fatigue

  • Hair loss

  • Diarrhea or constipation

  • Neuropathy, which is nerve damage that causes tingling, burning, weakness or numbness in hands or feet

  • Low blood count, which can put you at risk for anemia or infections

  • “Chemo brain,” which involves difficulty remembering or processing information


What type of cancers are treated with preventive therapy?

Adjuvant chemotherapy is most often used for patients with breast, colon and lung cancers to help improve their length of life. However, it can be used as preventive treatment for other types of cancer too.

How well it works depends on the type of cancer, the general health of the person who has it, and staging. Staging, the American Cancer Society reports, is the process of finding out how much cancer is in a person's body and where it's located.

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