Breast Cancer: Treatment

Once you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, your healthcare team will talk with you about a variety of treatment options. While many treatments are available, each person will have a treatment regimen that's geared to her particular cancer. There are currently five widely accepted treatments for breast cancer. These include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, hormonal therapy and targeted therapy. They often are used in combination.

  • Surgery: During breast cancer surgery, the cancerous breast tissue and, perhaps, neighboring regions will be removed. All of this tissue will be sent to a pathologist to analyze. He or she will document the exact size of the tumor itself, the type of breast cancer it is, how fast it is growing, how aggressive it is, and if the cancer has spread beyond the breast to the lymph nodes and/or other parts of the body received for analysis. After the pathologist puts together a report detailing all aspects of your cancer, doctors will be able to tell you what additional treatment may be necessary.

    Two main surgical options are:
    Mastectomy—Removal of the entire breast (not only the affected tissue) 
    Lumpectomy—Removal of only the cancer and a margin of surrounding healthy tissue

Various types of reconstructive surgery also can be performed, either at the time the cancer is removed or in future surgeries. Sentinel node biopsy is also performed on patients with known invasive breast cancer cells. This enables the surgeon to identify the specific node that would be affected first if the cancer were to spread. If this node contains cancer then additional nodes (referred to as an axillary node dissection) are also removed from under the arm.

  • Chemotherapy kills cancer cells and stops abnormal cells from spreading. Chemotherapy drugs may be delivered orally, in a shot or intravenously.
  • Radiation is a form of treatment in which cancer cells are destroyed, using energy waves.
  • Hormonal therapy can help to kill cancer cells before they multiply. Some cancers respond to hormonal therapy and others do not. Talking with your doctors about your type of breast cancer is an important part of creating your treatment plan.
  • Targeted biologic therapies are drugs that can be added to chemotherapy to target specific types of cancer cells. Ask your doctor if there are targeted therapies that may be appropriate for your type of breast cancer.

While cancer treatments can cause some bothersome side effects, it is important to follow the treatment plan designed for you by your healthcare team. Talk to your healthcare provider about any side effects you may experience. Medication can combat conditions such as nausea or fatigue, which are often associated with chemotherapy. Go to all your scheduled treatments, take your medications as prescribed and concentrate on doing what your healthcare team believes is best for you—mind and body. Remember, the discomfort and inconvenience during therapy is an investment you are making in your future well-being.