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Breast Cancer - Treatment Overview

When making decisions about treatment, you and your doctor will consider many things, such as your age and health, the type of breast cancer you have, and how likely it is to spread.

Breast cancer is usually treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or targeted therapy.

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Types of treatment

  • Surgery to remove the cancer. This may be done by removing the whole breast (mastectomy) or just the part of the breast that contains the breast cancer (lumpectomy). Some of the lymph nodes under the arm may also be removed.
  • Radiation therapy, which is the use of high-dose X-rays to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors.
  • Chemotherapy, which is the use of medicine to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy is called a systemic treatment, because the medicines enter the bloodstream, travel through the body, and can destroy cancer cells outside the target area.
  • Hormone therapy with tamoxifen or an aromatase inhibitor, to change the way hormones in the body cause cancer growth.
  • Targeted therapy with medicines that go directly to the cancer cells, such as trastuzumab (Herceptin).

In some cases, chemotherapy or hormone therapy is used before surgery to shrink the breast cancer. This may mean that less breast tissue has to be removed during surgery.

Depending on the tumor's size and whether cancer has spread to your lymph nodes, you may have several treatment options. Hormone therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of the two treatments may be used after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells. This also lowers the chances that the cancer will come back. Your doctor may suggest gene tests to find out if chemotherapy will help.

Side effects of treatment

Treatments can have side effects, such as nausea and vomiting and hair loss. For more information on how to manage side effects, see Home Treatment.

Additional information about breast cancer is provided by the National Cancer Institute at www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/breast.

Coping with emotions

When you first find out that you have cancer, you may feel scared or angry. Or you may feel very calm. It's normal to have a wide range of feelings and for those feelings to change quickly. Some people find that it helps to talk about their feelings with family and friends.

If your emotional reaction to cancer gets in the way of your ability to make decisions about your health, it's important to talk with your doctor. Your cancer treatment center may offer psychological or financial services. And a local chapter of the American Cancer Society can help you find a support group.

Having cancer can change your life in many ways. For support in managing these changes, see the topic Getting Support When You Have Cancer.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: June 18, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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