Breast Cancer Treatment Introduction

By Harwood, Kerry V RN, MSN

Your treatment choices depend on the size and location of the tumor in your breast, the results of lab tests such as hormone receptor tests, and the stage or extent of the disease. Your doctor also considers your age, general health, the size of your breasts, and whether you are in menopause when making recommendations about a treatment plan. You'll weigh these recommendations based on a range of personal factors and preferences that also must be taken into consideration.

Many women want to learn all they can about their disease and their treatment choices so that they can take an active part in decisions about their care. You will likely  have many questions and concerns about your treatment options. Most women also want to know how they will look after treatment and whether they will have to change their normal activities. Your doctor is the best person to answer questions about treatment choices, their expected success, possible risks and side effects, and expected cost.

Types of treatment

Treatments for breast cancer are either local or systemic. Local treatments remove, destroy, or control the cancer cells in one certain area. Surgery and radiation therapy are local treatments. Systemic treatments are used to destroy or control cancer cells throughout your body. Chemotherapy and hormonal therapy are systemic treatments. You may have one treatment or a combination of treatments.

Goals of treatment

Different types of treatments have different goals. Below is a list of various treatments and how they may be used.

  • Surgery. Surgery is used to remove the tumor from the breast. Sometimes only the tumor is removed and the breast is left intact. Sometimes only the part of the breast where the tumor is must be removed, but in some cases, the entire breast is removed. Surgery is also used to see if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. This information can help you and your doctor make important decisions about other treatments that may be helpful. Surgery may also be used to reconstruct a breast mound after the breast is removed. These different surgeries are sometimes done as one operation or may be done separately.

  • Radiation therapy. The goal of radiation therapy is to kill cancer cells using X-rays and other types of radiation. This treatment can be used to shrink a tumor before surgery, to kill cancer cells that may remain in the breast or chest area after surgery, or to treat tumors in other areas of your body. Radiation therapy is usually given daily, Monday through Friday, for several weeks.

  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is used to kill cancer cells with medicines that can travel throughout your body. It may be used to shrink a tumor before surgery, to kill cancer cells that may remain in your body after local treatments, or to treat tumors that have already developed in other areas of your body. Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles, with treatments given every three to four weeks over several months. Treatment of breast cancer that has spread will usually involve hormone therapy and/or chemotherapy with or without trastuzumab (Herceptin), depending on whether or not the cancer cells overexpress the HER-2 protein.

  • Hormonal therapy. Hormonal therapy is used to stop the growth of cancer cells that rely on hormones. Hormonal therapy may be used to decrease the chances of cancer returning or a new cancer developing after surgery. It can also be used to treat cancer that has spread. Hormonal therapy may include the use of any of the following drugs: anastrozole (Arimidex), fulvestrant (Faslodex), letrozole (Femara), or tamoxifen (Nolvadex). These may be given as a daily pill or as an injection. Hormonal treatment is usually given for several years or as long as it appears to be working, if it is being given for active disease.

Doctors are finding new ways to treat breast cancer. These new methods are tested in clinical trials. Before beginning treatment, a woman may want to ask her doctor if there are any clinical trials she should consider. 

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