Chemotherapy for secondary breast cancer

Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. You may have chemotherapy as a first treatment for secondary breast cancer, or after hormonal therapy.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. Cytotoxic means toxic to cells. These drugs affect the way cancer cells grow and divide, but they also affect normal cells.

We have more general information about having chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy for secondary breast cancer

Chemotherapy is one of the main treatments for secondary breast cancer. It may be given after you have had treatment with hormonal therapy. Or you may have it as a first treatment if the cancer:

If the cancer has HER2 receptors you usually have a targeted therapy drug with chemotherapy.

Sometimes, a type of chemotherapy called electrochemotherapy is used when secondary breast cancer has spread to the skin.

Chemotherapy drugs used for secondary breast cancer

Your cancer doctor or nurse will explain which drug, or drugs, are likely to be most helpful in your situation. You may have a single drug or a combination of drugs together.

Chemotherapy drugs used to treat secondary breast cancer include:

The drugs you have depend on any previous chemotherapy you had. If you have not had an anthracycline drug, such as doxorubicin or epirubicin, you may have one of these. If it has been a long time since you had either drug, your doctor may suggest having it again. If you have already had an anthracycline drug, you may have docetaxel.


Further treatment

If you need further treatment with chemotherapy you may have vinorelbine or capecitabine. Eribulin can be given to women who have already had 2 courses of chemotherapy.

Side effects of chemotherapy

Chemotherapy drugs can cause side effects. But there are usually ways these can be controlled.

Your doctor or nurse will give you information about the most likely side effects of your treatment. They can tell you what can be done to control and manage side effects.


About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our secondary breast cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at

    National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). Pathways Advanced Breast Cancer, updated 2017 (accessed November 2017).

    F Cardoso et al 3rd ESO–ESMO. International Consensus Guidelines for Advanced Breast Cancer. (ABC 3) 2016.

    Bourke M et al Effective Treatment of Intractable Cutaneous Metastases of Breast Cancer with Electrochemotherapy: Ten-year Audit of Single Centre Experience. Breast Cancer Research and Treatment January 2017, Volume 161, Issue 2, pp 289–297.


  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editors; Dr Russell Burcombe, Consultant Clinical Oncologist; Professor Mike Dixon, Professor of Surgery & Consultant Surgeon; and Dr Rebecca Roylance, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.