There are a number of treatments for breast cancer, but the ones women choose most often -- alone or in combination -- are surgery, hormone therapy, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.
What Standard Treatments Do
Here is what the standard cancer treatments are designed to do.
- Surgery takes out the cancer and some surrounding tissue.
- Hormone therapy keeps cancer cells from getting most of the hormones they need to survive and grow.
- Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors and some surrounding tissue.
- Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer drugs to kill most cancer cells.
Treatment for breast cancer may involve local or whole body therapy. Doctors use local therapies, such as surgery or radiation, to remove or destroy breast cancer in a specific area. Whole body, or systemic, treatments like chemotherapy, hormonal, or biological therapies are used to destroy or control cancer throughout the body. Some patients have both kinds of treatment.
Treating Early-Stage Breast Cancer
If you have early-stage breast cancer, one common treatment available to you is a lumpectomy combined with radiation therapy. A lumpectomy is surgery that preserves a woman's breast.
(Watch the video and hear Jane Brody, New York Times reporter, talk about her experience with breast cancer. To enlarge this video and the one below, click the brackets in the lower right-hand corner. To reduce the video, press the Escape (Esc) button on your keyboard.)
In a lumpectomy, the surgeon removes only the tumor and a small amount of the surrounding tissue. The survival rate for a woman who has this therapy plus radiation is similar to that for a woman who chooses a radical mastectomy, which is complete removal of a breast.
If Cancer Has Spread Locally
If you have breast cancer that has spread locally -- just to other parts of the breast -- your treatment may involve a combination of chemotherapy and surgery. Doctors usually first shrink the tumor with chemotherapy and then remove it through surgery. Shrinking the tumor before surgery may allow a woman to avoid a mastectomy and keep her breast.
(Watch the video to see how one woman deals with a diagnosis of breast cancer and the decisions she must make.)
In the past, doctors would remove a lot of lymph nodes near breast tumors to see if the cancer had spread. Some doctors also use a method called sentinel node biopsy. Using a dye or radioactive tracer, surgeons locate the first or sentinel lymph node closest to the tumor, and remove only that node to see if the cancer has spread.
If Cancer Has Spread Beyond the Breast
If the breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lung or bone, you might receive chemotherapy and/or hormonal therapy to destroy cancer cells and control the disease. Radiation therapy may also be useful to control tumors in other parts of the body.