There is no single breast cancer treatment that works for every patient, but there are a range of treatments that can be effective.
The main ways to treat breast cancer are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Depending on where in the breast and how advanced your cancer is, and whether it has spread to other parts of your body, your doctor may suggest one or more of the following types of treatment. They're often combined in order to fight the cancer as aggressively as possible.
Cancer treatments vary based upon the type, location and stage of the disease. Some are designed to keep it in remission for as long as possible. Some treatments might stop the cancer from spreading. And others won't treat the cancer directly, but will help you feel more comfortable. These are some of the most common treatments for breast cancer:
Breast cancer surgery is intended to remove all of the malignant cells from your body. Surgery is most commonly used before the cancer has spread from the breasts to other parts of the body. When the cancer has spread, surgery is more complex, and it's much harder to be sure that all the cancer has been completely removed.
Sometimes, it's impossible to entirely remove a cancerous tumor, because trying to remove it all might lead to damaging other important parts of your body. In these cases, doctors try to remove as much of the tumor as they can, and they'll try to get rid of the rest by using other treatments.
Just like with biopsies, when you undergo surgery for breast cancer, local or general anesthesia is used to help reduce the pain of the surgery.
When you undergo chemotherapy, commonly known as "chemo," you'll take special cancer-killing medications to help shrink or eliminate your breast cancer, or to help relieve its symptoms.
Chemotherapy drugs can be given as pills, as shots, or intravenously, which means directly into your blood vessels through a tube called a catheter.
Since the chemotherapy drugs are so powerful, you might experience some strong side effects when you're receiving chemotherapy. These include exhaustion, hair loss, nausea, and a weakened immune system that makes you more likely to become sick.
In radiation therapy, high doses of radiation are used to try to kill your breast cancer. Radiation is a type of highly concentrated energy—in fact, it's so powerful that it can be very dangerous. But when it's used in a carefully controlled situation to focus on eliminating particular cancer cells, it can be very effective, because it’s highly focused energy is good at killing fast-growing cells like cancer cells.
Typically, radiation treatments take about 30 minutes once or twice each day over a period of many days or weeks.
There are different ways that radiation is delivered into your body to fight cancer cells. These ways are all designed to kill cancer as efficiently and in as focused a manner as possible. But you'll still probably experience some negative side effects associated with radiation. These side effects include fatigue, hair loss, and sore, dry, or red skin. Depending on where your radiation treatment is focused, you may experience side effects in other parts of your body, too. All these side effects result from the highly focused energy of radiation: it kills and damages some healthy cells in addition to the cancer cells it destroys.
Sometimes, the cancer has spread widely or has failed to be eliminated by all the possible treatments. In a case like this, there might not be anything else that doctors can do to get rid of the cancer.
In these cases, your doctor may recommend palliative care. Palliative care is treatment that helps you deal with the symptoms of cancer but doesn't treat the cancer. Palliative care strategies include pain management and mental healthcare. Palliative care specialists can help make you much more comfortable, particularly if you're dealing with late-stage cancer. They can help you live at home, spend more time with loved ones, receive spiritual and psychological care, and receive the pain medicine that's appropriate for you.
There are other types of treatments available for breast cancer, like hormone therapy and lymph node surgery. Depending on the exact nature of your breast cancer, your doctor will recommend the treatment or combination of treatments that is most likely to be effective.
What should I do after I've been treated for cancer?
Most breast cancer treatments can be physically and mentally exhausting, and may lead to various side effects. After receiving treatment, you'll need some time to rest and recover.
After your treatment is over, your doctor will likely recommend breast cancer screening on a regular basis to ensure that the breast cancer hasn't returned.