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What is preventative chemotherapy? We answer the most-searched questions about Kate Middleton’s recent treatment

Emma Harpham, Editor  |   5 Apr 2024

Against the backdrop of the Princess of Wales’s recent cancer diagnosis, you’ve probably seen a lot of questions flying around online – along with swathes of misinformation, and a whole lot of wildly intrusive and unfair speculation.

Here on TRB’s all-female team, we’re acutely aware of the implications of being asked to share information about our bodies and our health, from well-meaning questions about whether we’re pregnant yet, to why we might’ve gained weight. 

So when it comes to Kate Middleton’s health and personal life, we’re absolutely not here for any of that.

The preventive treatment questions you’re asking 

However, on page one of Google (and in the odd DM over on our Instagram) we’ve been seeing a lot of questions about preventative chemotherapy, adjuvant chemo, and other preventive treatments – ranging from how they affect our overall wellbeing, to whether they can impact our fertility.

So we’ve put together a quick, at-a-glance guide, along with reliable resources from across the web and straight from our own expert partners. 

Here’s what we know.

What is preventative chemotherapy?

The NHS doesn’t use the term ‘preventative chemotherapy’, but their dedicated pages tell us that preventive chemotherapy is used to reduce the risk of cancer coming back after radiotherapy or surgery.

Also known as adjuvant chemotherapy, preventative treatment of this kind would usually happen after you’ve had a cancer diagnosis as well as some kind of primary treatment like surgery, to destroy any cells that could lead to recurrences of the cancer in the future.  

Preventative treatment for cancer can take the form of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, or, in some cases, hormone therapy.

Basically, it’s a backstop treatment to decrease the chances that the cancer will return.


Who might need preventive chemotherapy?

The Princess of Wales announced that she had been diagnosed with cancer after an incidental finding following a planned abdominal surgery.

But, preventative treatment can be used in a range of situations

Your doctor may recommend preventive chemotherapy if:

  • You have a particular type of cancer that is known to respond well to chemotherapy drugs
  • You test positive for a specific genetic mutation that carries a high risk of cancer recurrence (for example, you’re at an increased risk of breast cancer due to your family history)
  • Your cancer is not positive for hormone receptors, making hormone therapy ineffective
  • You have a later-stage cancer

Neoadjuvant chemotherapy might be an option for some people. This is when you get chemo before your primary treatment, with the goal of making your primary treatment successful.

How long does preventive chemo take?

Depending on the type and stage of the cancer, a typical course of preventive chemotherapy could last three to six months.

You might even take preventative chemotherapy over the course of several years. 

To learn more about what happens during chemotherapy, hop over to the NHS pages here.

Does preventive chemo have side effects? 

Like regular chemotherapy, preventative chemo can have side effects too.

This is because, as well as killing fast-dividing cancer cells, it can temporarily damage some healthy cells in your body.

Side effects could include:

  • Nausea and being sick
  • Tiredness
  • Immunosuppression 
  • Hair loss
  • A sore mouth
  • Dry, sore or itchy skin
  • Diarrhoea or constipation

These should pass after preventative treatment stops.

We mustn’t forget that a course of any kind of chemotherapy can be very difficult for individuals and their families to process and manage. 

Cancer Research UK has a really handy list of cancer support resources to help manage your mental health during treatment.


Could preventative chemotherapy impact fertility?

In short – yes, it could. Chemotherapy can prevent your ovaries from working properly, and reduce the number of eggs in your follicles, depending on dosage.

Some chemo treatments can also trigger early menopause, especially in older patients.

For more on all things chemo and fertility preservation, bookmark our guide to cancer and fertility created with IVF-Life, a state-of-the-art fertility clinic with a presence across Europe.

How long does it take to recover? 

Recovery times for preventative treatments like preventative chemotherapy can vary, depending on the type of treatment given. 

It can often take several months to feel like yourself again. Younger people usually recover faster than older people.

If you’ve got more questions or concerns about cancer diagnosis, fertility preservation or preventative treatment, do connect with your medical team. 

The NHS, Cancer Support UK, and Macmillan Cancer Support all have a range of resources if you’re based in the UK.

If you’re in the US, check out the support available through the American Cancer Society, CancerCare.org, and the National Cancer Institute.

Want to hear more from TRB? Read this next: Having a baby after breast cancer diagnosis – key things to know with Generation Next Fertility

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