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Understanding Breast Cancer -- Diagnosis & Treatment

What Are the Treatments for Breast Cancer?

If you have breast cancer, the earlier you can get treatment, the better. But before making treatment decisions, research your options. Ask questions of your doctor, other specialists, and people who have had breast cancer. Find a doctor you trust, and don't rush your decision. A brief delay between diagnosis and treatment will not compromise the effectiveness of treatment.

Surgery for Breast Cancer

The treatment options for breast cancer depend on how advanced the cancer is, how old the woman is, and how healthy she is otherwise. If possible, breast cancer is treated surgically, followed usually by some combination of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or hormone therapy.

Modified Radical Masectomy

The standard surgery for breast cancer was once modified radical mastectomy -- removal of the entire breast and lymph nodes in the breast and under the arm. For many women whose breast cancer is detected early and is still localized, lumpectomy -- removal of the cancerous lump and testing key lymph nodes -- is now the preferred treatment. Followed by appropriate radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy, lumpectomy has proven as effective as mastectomy for early breast cancer and is much less disfiguring.

For breast cancer that has metastasized and for breast cancer that has come back, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are the main treatments. Hormone therapy may also be beneficial for cancers that are hormone-responsive. In addition, biologic modifiers such as trastuzumab (Herceptin) may be useful in helping patients whose cancer has an excess of a particular protein called HER2 that causes the cells to divide and grow more agressively. Surgery may still be an option depending upon the site of recurrence and the extent of other sites of disease.

Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer

When breast cancer is limited to the breast or lymph nodes, adjuvant chemotherapy may be given after a lumpectomy or mastectomy. This is done to help reduce the chance of breast cancer coming back.

If the breast tumor is large, chemotherapy or endocrine therapy may be given before surgery to shrink the tumor so it can be removed more easily, or a lumpectomy can be performed instead of a mastectomy.

Chemotherapy or endocrine therapy may also be given as the main treatment for women whose cancer has spread to parts of the body outside of the breast and lymph nodes.

Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer

Radiation therapy is usually given after a lumpectomy and sometimes after a mastectomy to reduce the risk of cancer coming back in the same breast. The radiation treatments generally start several weeks after the surgery so the area has some time to heal. If your doctor recommends chemotherapy along with radiation therapy, the chemotherapy should be given before you start radiation therapy.

The type of breast cancer radiation that most people are familiar with is called external beam radiation. It's also the type most commonly used in cases of breast cancer. External beam radiation works by focusing a beam of radiation from a machine to its target, the area of the body affected by cancer.     

WebMD Medical Reference

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