If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, your cancer care team will discuss treatment options with you. It’s important that you take time to think about your choices. You will want to weigh the benefits of each treatment option against the possible risks and side effects.
Which treatments are used for breast cancer?
There are several ways to treat breast cancer, depending on its type and stage.
Local treatments: Some treatments are called local therapies, meaning they treat the tumor without affecting the rest of the body. Types of local therapy used for breast cancer include:
These treatments are more likely to be useful for earlier stage (less advanced) cancers, although they might also be used in some other situations.
Systemic treatments: Breast cancer can also be treated using drugs, which can be given by mouth or directly into the bloodstream. These are called systemic therapies because they can reach cancer cells anywhere in the body. Depending on the type of breast cancer, several different types of drugs might be used, including:
Many women will get more than one type of treatment for their cancer.
How is breast cancer typically treated?
Most women with breast cancer will have some type of surgery to remove the tumor. Depending on the type of breast cancer and how advanced it is, you may need other types of treatment as well, either before or after surgery, or sometimes both. Surgery is less likely to be a main part of the treatment for more advanced breast cancers.
Typical treatment plans are based on the type of breast cancer, its stage, and any special situations:
- Non-invasive breast cancer (DCIS or LCIS)
- Invasive breast cancer (Stages I-IV)
- Breast cancer during pregnancy
Your treatment plan will depend on other factors as well, including your overall health and personal preferences.
Who treats breast cancer?
Doctors on your cancer treatment team might include:
- A breast surgeon: a doctor who uses surgery to treat breast cancer
- A radiation oncologist: a doctor who uses radiation to treat cancer
- A medical oncologist: a doctor who uses chemotherapy and other medicines to treat cancer
Many other specialists might be part of your treatment team as well, including physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, psychologists, social workers, nutritionists, and other health professionals. See Health Professionals Associated With Cancer Care for more on this.
Making treatment decisions
It’s important to discuss all of your treatment options, including their goals and possible side effects, with your doctors to help make the decision that best fits your needs. It’s also very important to ask questions if there is anything you’re not sure about. See “What should you ask your cancer care team about breast cancer?” for ideas.
Getting a second opinion
You may also want to get a second opinion. This can give you more information and help you feel more certain about the treatment plan you choose. If you aren’t sure where to go for a second opinion, ask your doctor for help. See Seeking a Second Opinion for more information.
Thinking about taking part in a clinical trial
Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done to get a closer look at promising new treatments or procedures. Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art cancer treatment. In some cases they may be the only way to get access to newer treatments. They are also the best way for doctors to learn better methods to treat cancer. Still, they are not right for everyone.
If you would like to learn more about clinical trials that might be right for you, start by asking your doctor if your clinic or hospital conducts clinical trials. You can also call our clinical trials matching service at 1-800-303-5691 for a list of studies that meet your medical needs, or see the Clinical Trials section to learn more.
Considering complementary and alternative methods
You may hear about alternative or complementary methods that your doctor hasn’t mentioned to treat your cancer or relieve symptoms. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, and special diets, or other methods such as acupuncture or massage, to name a few.
Complementary methods refer to treatments that are used along with your regular medical care. Alternative treatments are used instead of a doctor’s medical treatment. Although some of these methods might be helpful in relieving symptoms or helping you feel better, many have not been proven to work. Some might even be dangerous.
Be sure to talk to your cancer care team about any method you are thinking about using. They can help you learn what is known (or not known) about the method, which can help you make an informed decision. See the Complementary and Alternative Medicine section to learn more.
Choosing to stop treatment or choosing no treatment at all
For some people, when treatments have been tried and are no longer controlling the cancer, it could be time to weigh the benefits and risks of continuing to try new treatments. Whether or not you continue treatment, there are still things you can do to help maintain or improve your quality of life. Learn more in If Cancer Treatments Stop Working.
Some people, especially if the cancer is advanced, might not want to be treated at all. There are many reasons you might decide not to get cancer treatment, but it’s important to talk this through with your doctors before you make that decision. Remember that even if you choose not to treat the cancer, you can still get supportive care to help with pain or other symptoms.
Help getting through cancer treatment
Your cancer care team will be your first source of information and support, but there are other resources for help when you need it. Hospital- or clinic-based support services are an important part of your care. These might include nursing or social work services, financial aid, nutritional advice, rehab, or spiritual help.
The American Cancer Society also has programs and services – including rides to treatment, lodging, support groups, and more – to help you get through treatment. Call our National Cancer Information Center at 1-800-227-2345 and speak with one of our trained specialists on call 24 hours a day, every day.
Last Revised: 09/13/2016