Treating Breast Cancer

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 local, meaning they treat the tumor without affecting the rest of the body. Types of local therapy used for breast cancer include:

Systemic treatments: Drugs used to treat breast cancer are considered systemic therapies because they can reach cancer cells almost anywhere in the body. They can be given by mouth or put directly into the bloodstream. Depending on the type of breast cancer, different types of drug treatment might be used, including:

Many women 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 might need other types of treatment as well, either before or after surgery, or sometimes both.

Typically, treatment plans are based on the type of breast cancer, its stage, and any special situations:

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 or surgical oncologist: 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
  • A plastic surgeon: a doctor who specializes in reconstructing or repairing parts of the body

Many other specialists might be part of your treatment team as well, including physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, psychologists, social workers, nutritionists, genetic counselors, 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 Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Breast Cancer for ideas.

Getting a second opinion

You might 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.

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.  See Clinical Trials to learn more.

Considering complementary and alternative methods

You may hear about alternative or complementary methods to treat your cancer or relieve symptoms that your doctor hasn’t mentioned.

  • Complementary methods are treatments that are used  along with your regular medical care. 
  • Alternative treatments are used instead of a doctor’s medical treatment.

These methods can include vitamins, herbs, and special diets, or other methods such as acupuncture or massage, to name a few. 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. 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. See Complementary and Alternative Medicine 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 things you can do to help maintain or improve your quality of life. Learn more in If Cancer Treatments Are No Longer Working.

Some people, especially if the cancer is advanced, might not want to be treated at all. There are many reasons people might choose to not get cancer treatment, but it’s important to talk to your doctors and 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 breast cancer treatment

Your cancer care team will be your first source of information and support, but there are many places you can get more help if you need it. Hospital- or clinic-based support services are an important part of your care. These might include nurse 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, and more – to help you get through treatment. Call us at 1-800-227-2345 and speak to one of our trained cancer information specialists.