Questions & Answers about Breast Cancer Treatment
There are many ways to treat breast cancer. Your doctor will suggest a special treatment plan for you. Your plan may include one or more of the following treatments:
- Radiation therapy
- Hormone therapy
- Monoclonal antibody therapy
How is surgery used to treat breast cancer?
Doctors do surgery to cut the cancer away from healthy breast tissue. Surgery is one of the most common treatments for breast cancer. During surgery, the doctor may remove the cancer with a small amount of breast tissue or she may need to remove one or both of your breasts. These two kinds of breast cancer surgery are called lumpectomy and mastectomy.
- Lumpectomy is removing the lump, or tumor, and some of the breast tissue around it to treat the cancer. If cancer is found at the edge of the tissue (removed by lumpectomy), the surgeon may need to remove more tissue. It is important to have a clear, cancer-free margin of normal breast tissue to avoid recurrence.
- Mastectomy is removing the full breast or both breasts in order to treat the breast cancer.
Sometimes during surgery for breast cancer, lymph nodes are taken out as well. Lymph nodes are small bean-shaped areas of tissue that help fight infections in the body. Cancer can spread through the lymph nodes. The doctor checks your lymph nodes to see if the cancer has spread.
How is radiation therapy used to treat breast cancer?
Radiation therapy uses special x-rays to kill or harm cancer cells. There are two main ways radiation therapy may be used to treat breast cancer:
- A special machine is used to point powerful x-rays at the cancer from outside the body.
- Tiny pellets containing the radiation are put into the body where the cancer is. The radioactive pellets are placed directly into the breast tissue next to the cancer.
Radiation hurts cancer cells, but it also hurts healthy cells. This can cause side effects such as muscle stiffness, mild swelling and tenderness, and a sunburn-like reaction on the skin where you received radiation. These side effects should go away as the normal, healthy cells recover.
Radiation therapy may be used before surgery to shrink a tumor. It is also used after surgery or chemotherapy to destroy any cancer cells that could be left behind. A woman usually has treatment five days a week for about six weeks. Each treatment lasts a few minutes and doesn’t cause pain.
How is chemotherapy used to treat breast cancer?
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill or harm cancer cells. There are two main ways chemotherapy is given:
- By having a needle placed in your arm. The liquid chemotherapy goes through the needle and attacks cancer cells in your body.
- By taking pills that contain the chemotherapy medicine.
Chemotherapy drugs stop cancer cells from growing and dividing. Like radiation therapy, chemotherapy can also affect healthy cells. This can cause some side affects. Common side affects include nausea, vomiting, feeling tired (called fatigue), and low blood counts. These side effects should go away as the normal, healthy cells recover.
Chemotherapy may be used after surgery to kill any cancer cells in your body. A woman having chemotherapy for breast cancer usually takes two or more different chemotherapy drugs for three to six months.
How is hormone therapy used to treat breast cancer?
Hormone therapy uses drugs to change the way hormones work in the body. It helps stop cancer cells from growing. Hormones are chemicals made in the body. Certain kinds of breast cancer need hormones so they can grow. If the hormones are blocked, cancer cells can’t grow.
Hormone therapy is used after surgery to lower the chances of cancer coming back. It also is used to treat breast cancer that has spread to other parts of your body. Sometimes it is used with chemotherapy.
Based on the tests done on your breast cancer tissue, your doctor will know if you have the type of breast cancer that will be likely to respond to this treatment.
How is monoclonal antibody therapy used to treat breast cancer?
Monoclonal antibody therapy helps the body fight cancer cells. Some kinds of breast cancer need certain proteins to grow.
Monoclonal antibodies keep these proteins from working right. If the proteins don’t work right, the cancer cells can’t grow. Monoclonal antibodies are like proteins, but are made in a lab and then put into your body. Unlike chemotherapy or radiation therapy, monoclonal antibodies can be used to find and hurt only cancer cells. They don’t hurt healthy cells.
They may be used as the only treatment or with chemotherapy. From the tests done on your breast cancer tissue, your doctor will know whether you have the type of breast cancer that will be likely to respond to this treatment.
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Excerpted with permission from Breast Cancer Clear & Simple: All Your Questions Answered, copyright © 2008, by the American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org/bookstore.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2008.