Breast cancer treatment: Know your options
After the initial shock of a breast cancer diagnosis, often comes this question: How can I beat it?
The answer is as unique as you are. It depends on the type of cancer you have, how advanced it is and how aggressively you want to treat it.
At first, the choices facing you may feel overwhelming. But arming yourself with some facts can help put your mind at ease and prepare you for the decisions to come.
5 common breast cancer treatments
Chances are you’ll be having some in-depth conversations with your doctor before you decide on a treatment plan. Depending on your diagnosis, some treatments you might discuss include:
Surgery. Most women will have some kind of surgery to remove the breast tumor. You may have options such as:
- Breast-conserving surgery. The cancer and other tissues are removed, but the breast remains.
- Total mastectomy. The entire breast is removed and perhaps some lymph nodes.
- Modified radical mastectomy. The entire breast is removed, along with many of the lymph nodes, the lining over the chest muscles and sometimes part of the chest wall.
Lymph nodes are tiny filters that help clear fluid from cells in the breast and other tissues throughout the body. They are one of the places that cancer may spread. So removing them can help determine how advanced your cancer is and what other treatments you may need.
Chemotherapy. These drugs kill cancer cells or help prevent them from multiplying. You might get chemotherapy before surgery to help shrink a tumor — or after surgery to help kill any cancer cells left behind.
Chemotherapy can be taken by mouth or through an injection. It’s usually given in cycles of two or three weeks at a time, followed by a rest period to let your body recover.
Radiation therapy. Radiation for breast cancer uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or stop them from multiplying. It’s often used after surgery to lower the chances that the cancer will return — or to treat cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.
Treatment plans vary, but radiation often occurs over five or six weeks.
Hormone therapy. Some hormones cause certain cancers to grow faster. If your cancer cells are the kind that are affected by estrogen, you may be able to take drugs that will block it. To prevent cancer from returning, you may need to take them for five years or more.
Removing the ovaries, which produce estrogen, may also be an option.
Targeted therapy. These drugs are able to identify and attack cancer cells while leaving healthy cells untouched. But they don’t work for every type of breast cancer. They may be given alone or alongside other drug treatments.
Questions to ask your doctor
As you think about your options, keep a running list of questions for your doctor, and bring it to each visit. You might start with these:
- What type of breast cancer do I have?
- How big is the tumor and where is it?
- What stage of breast cancer do I have? What does that mean?
- What treatment would you recommend for me?
- What are the risks and side effects? What can I do to reduce them?
- How long will treatment last?
- Will it affect my fertility?
- How will treatment affect my daily life?
- What is my long-term outlook?
Find an oncologist
Don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion. The more you know about your breast cancer—and the options for treating it—the more active you can be in your care. Find an Adventist Health oncologist.