The medicine trastuzumab (Herceptin) is the most common medicine used to treat HER2- positive breast cancer. It is a monoclonal antibody, a medicine made in a lab that attacks a specific protein produced on the outside of a cell. It falls in a class of medicines called targeted therapies.
Research shows people with HER2-positive breast cancer treated with trastuzumab along with chemotherapy are likely to live longer than those with HER2-positive disease who receive chemotherapy alone. Treatment with trastuzumab and chemotherapy also cuts the risk of recurrence, or return of the cancer, in half.
If the cancer you have is both hormone receptor-positive and HER2 positive, you are likely to receive targeted treatments for both types of breast cancer.
In early-stage disease, you may receive trastuzumab either before or after surgery. The medicine is given by vein, either once a week or once every 3 weeks for one year. It is almost always given with chemotherapy. If you have a high risk of recurrence, you may also receive pertuzumab (Perjeta), another HER2-targeting treatment, either before or after surgery. Common combinations that include trastuzumab are:
- ACTH (Adriamycin, Cyclophosphamide, Taxol and Herceptin)
- TCH (Taxotere or Taxol, Cyclophosphamide and Herceptin)
- THP (Taxotere, Herceptin and Perjeta)
One common plan is to take chemotherapy alone for several cycles, and then take taxane chemotherapy along with trastuzumab. When you finish the taxane, your team will continue to give you trastuzumab until you finish about a year of treatment. Your providers may also give you all your chemotherapy first and then start trastuzumab. Ask why they suggest one option over the other.
When given before surgery, trastuzumab and medicines given with it help to shrink large tumors. In some cases, this neoadjuvant treatment makes it possible to have a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy.
You and your doctor will discuss the best treatments for your situation.
In general, trastuzumab is less likely than chemotherapy to cause serious side effects that could make you need to stop treatment. Some people have flu-like symptoms after starting trastuzumab. The most common side effects include
- fever or chills
- muscle aches
- skin reaction to injection, including redness and irritation
- Low white blood cell count, which can lead to infections
If you are also receiving chemotherapy, you may also have chemotherapy side effects.
Heart problems are a rare but serious possible side effect of trastuzumab. The idea of heart issues can be scary, but research shows most heart problems caused by trastuzumab are not permanent or long-term. Though it’s unlikely you’ll have serious heart problems while taking trastuzumab, it’s important your doctor closely monitor your heart health while you take this medicine.
Before you start trastuzumab and throughout treatment, you should get echocardiograms (sometimes called echos), tests that look at your heart health. If your first echo suggests you have heart problems, trastuzumab may not be the right treatment for you. Talk with your healthcare team about other options.
Before starting trastuzumab, tell your doctor about any medicines you are taking, including vitamins, herbal supplements and over-the-counter medicines. You should not become pregnant while taking trastuzumab.