The treatment options always depend on the type and size of the tumor, where it has spread to (if it has spread), the patient’s general health, as well as their personal preferences. Breast cancer can be treated with surgery, radiation and medication. Different treatment approaches are often combined.
The standard treatment is to try to surgically remove as much of the tumor as possible. Neighboring lymph nodes are sometimes also removed. If the tumor is small, women are often faced with a decision: Should they keep the breast or have it completely removed? Nowadays many women can have surgery that allows them to keep the breast (breast-conserving surgery). But sometimes the entire breast needs to be removed (mastectomy) to make sure that all of the tumor tissue has gone.
Chemotherapy (treatment with medication) is sometimes used to shrink larger tumors before surgery and make it easier to operate on them. This kind of treatment is called “neoadjuvant chemotherapy.”
Chemotherapy is sometimes used after surgery too. Women who have a hormone-sensitive tumor may have anti-hormonal therapy. This aims to slow down tumor growth.
After breast-conserving surgery the surrounding tissue is exposed to radiation, if possible, so that any remaining tumor cells can be destroyed. This is sometimes necessary after a mastectomy as well. Radiotherapy is also commonly used if the tumor cannot be surgically removed.
The different types of treatment can be very difficult to go through and sometimes have very severe side effects or cause other medical problems. The side effects vary depending on the kind of treatment, but they are often easy to treat. The treatment of side effects is part of what is known as supportive care.
Before deciding on whether to have a particular treatment, there is usually enough time to get information from your doctor about the possible benefits and the expected side effects, and to talk with your family or other people who are close to you. In certain cases, biomarker testing can help some women decide whether or not to have chemotherapy. You also have the right to seek a second opinion from another doctor or to decide not to have a treatment.