Breast Cancer

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Treating Breast Cancer TOPICS

How is breast cancer treated?

General types of treatment for breast cancer

The main types of treatment for breast cancer are:

Treatments can be classified into broad groups, based on how they work and when they are used.

Local versus systemic therapy

Local therapy is intended to treat a tumor at the site without affecting the rest of the body. Surgery and radiation therapy are examples of local therapies.

Systemic therapy refers to drugs which can be given by mouth or directly into the bloodstream to reach cancer cells anywhere in the body. Chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy are systemic therapies.

Adjuvant and neoadjuvant therapy

Patients who have no detectable cancer after surgery are often given additional treatment to help keep the cancer from coming back. This is known as adjuvant therapy. Doctors believe that even in the early stages of breast cancer, cancer cells may break away from the primary breast tumor and begin to spread. These cells can't be felt on a physical exam or seen on x-rays or other imaging tests, and they cause no symptoms. But they can go on to become new tumors in nearby tissues, other organs, and bones. The goal of adjuvant therapy is to kill these hidden cells. Both systemic therapy (like chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy) and radiation can be used as adjuvant therapy.

Most, but not all, patients benefit from adjuvant therapy. How much you might benefit depends on the stage and characteristics of the cancer and what type of surgery you had. Generally speaking, if the tumor is larger or the cancer has spread to lymph nodes, it is more likely to have spread through the bloodstream, and you are more likely to see a benefit. But there are other features, some of which have been previously discussed, that may determine if a patient should get adjuvant therapy. Recommendations about adjuvant therapy are discussed in the sections on these treatments and in the section on treatment by stage.

Some patients are given treatment, such as chemotherapy or hormone therapy, before surgery. The goal of this treatment is to shrink the tumor in the hope it will allow a less extensive operation to be done. This is called neoadjuvant therapy. Neoadjuvant therapy also lowers the chance of the cancer coming back later. Many patients who get neoadjuvant therapy will not need adjuvant therapy, or will not need as much.

The next few sections offer general information about the types of treatments used for breast cancer. This is followed by a discussion of the typical treatment options based on the stage of the cancer (including non-invasive and invasive breast cancers), plus a small section on breast cancer treatment during pregnancy.

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 “Clinical Trials” 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 Complementary and Alternative Medicine to learn more.

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.

The treatment information given here is not official policy of the American Cancer Society and is not intended as medical advice to replace the expertise and judgment of your cancer care team. It is intended to help you and your family make informed decisions, together with your doctor. Your doctor may have reasons for suggesting a treatment plan different from these general treatment options. Don't hesitate to ask him or her questions about your treatment options.

Last Medical Review: 09/25/2014
Last Revised: 01/15/2016