When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, she may immediately ask if she is going to lose her breast. Fortunately, with advances in breast cancer treatment options over the last 25 years, mastectomies are reserved for a smaller percentage of women with specific risks. The majority of women with breast cancer benefit from other breast cancer treatment options including lumpectomies, chemotherapy and radiation.
Breast cancer treatment options can be broken into two general categories: local and systemic. Local treatments target a specific area of the body and include surgery and radiation. System treatments affect the entire body and are designed to reach those cancer cells that may have spread from the breast; they include chemotherapy, hormone therapy and immunotherapy.
Local breast cancer treatment options include mastectomy, lumpectomy, and radiation. There are actually 5 common types of mastectomy surgeries, but all essentially involve removal of the entire breast tissue. Certain types also involve removal of the pectoral muscles and lymph nodes. A lumpectomy is a more conservative surgery that only removes the cancerous tumor and a small amount of normal tissue surrounding it. This conserves as much of the breast as possible and reduces the need for reconstruction. Radiation often goes hand in hand with a lumpectomy as another line of treatment.
Radiation involves treating the affected area with high energy rays to shrink and kill any remaining cancer cells. Radiation can either be external (i.e. x-rays) or internal (i.e. radioactive material). With external radiation, the high energy rays are directed at the affected area for just a few minutes at a time. Treatments are usually given 5 days a week for up to 6 weeks. One internal radiation method currently be used is call Mammosite. Mammosite involves inserting a balloon into the space created by the lumpectomy. The balloon is attached to a thin tube that stays outside of the breast. It is filled with salt water, then radioactive material is added and removed twice a day for 5 days. The balloon is then removed.
Systemic breast cancer treatment options include chemotherapy, hormone therapy and immunotherapy. Chemotherapy can be given either intravenously or via a pill. While there are many different types of chemotherapy drugs, their basic mission is the same - to kill cancer cells. It can be used after surgery to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back, or it can be given before surgery to shrink the tumor and make it easier to remove. It can also be used as the primary treatment if the cancer has spread beyond the breast and underarm area. Because chemotherapy is a systemic treatment, it affects many other cells in the body, which accounts for the common side effects such as hair loss and nausea.
Another systemic breast cancer treatment option is hormone treatment. For some women, the hormone estrogen promotes the growth of breast cancer; in such cases, hormone therapy can be used to block estrogen or lower its levels. One of the most common hormone therapy drugs is Tamoxifen, which blocks the effects of estrogen. It is taken in pill form, usually for 5 years after surgery to enhance breast cancer recovery and reduce the risk of reoccurrence. It can also be used as a prophylactic in women who are at high risk of developing breast cancer.
Immunotherapy for breast cancer treatment is often used in conjunction with chemotherapy to reduce the rate of reoccurrence in women who are going through breast cancer recovery. One immunotherapy drug, Herceptin, works by attaching to a growth-promoting protein found in normal breast cells as well as most breast cancers. When this growth-promoting protein is found in high concentrations, it can cause the cancer to grow and spread faster. Therefore, the Herceptin works to reduce this protein and thereby reduce the potential growth of any remaining breast cancer cells.
With such a wide variety of treatment options, doctors are able to tailor breast cancer treatment for each woman and her specific needs. With continued funding for research, the medical community will surely discover even more treatments and hopefully even a cure.