Breast Cancer - Treatment

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What is the treatment for breast cancer?

Patients with breast cancer have many treatment options. Most treatments are adjusted specifically to the type of cancer and the staging group. Treatment options should be discussed with a health-care team. The following are the basic treatment modalities used in the treatment of breast cancer.

Surgery

Most women with breast cancer will require surgery. Broadly, the surgical therapies for breast cancer can be divided into breast-conserving surgery and mastectomy.

Breast-conserving surgery

This surgery will only remove part of the breast (sometimes referred to as partial mastectomy). The extent of the surgery is determined by the size and location of the tumor.

In a lumpectomy, only the breast lump and some surrounding tissue is removed. The surrounding tissue (margins) are inspected for cancer cells. If no cancer cells are found, this is called "negative" or "clear margins." Frequently, radiation therapy is given after lumpectomies.

Mastectomy

During a mastectomy (sometimes also referred to as a simple mastectomy), all the breast tissue is removed. If immediate reconstruction is considered, a skin-sparing mastectomy is sometimes performed. In this surgery, all the breast tissue is removed as well but the overlying skin is preserved.

Radical mastectomy

During this surgery, the surgeon removes the axillary lymph nodes as well as the chest wall muscle in addition to the breast. This procedure is done much less frequently than in the past, as in most cases, a modified radical mastectomy is as effective.

Modified radical mastectomy

This surgery removes the axillary lymph nodes in addition to the breast tissue. Depending on the stage of the cancer, a health-care team might give someone a choice between a lumpectomy and a mastectomy. Lumpectomy allows sparing of the breast but usually requires radiation therapy afterward. If lumpectomy is indicated, long-term follow-up shows no advantage of a mastectomy over the lumpectomy.

Preventive surgery

For a small group of patients who have a very high risk of breast cancer, surgery to remove the breasts may be an option. Although this reduces the risk significantly, a small chance of developing cancer remains.

Double mastectomy is a surgical option to prevent breast cancer. This prophylactic (preventive) surgery can decrease the risk of breast cancer by about 90% for women at moderate to high risk for breast cancer.

Such an approach should be carefully discussed with a health-care team.

The discussion about whether to undergo any preventive surgery should include

  • genetic testing for BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations,
  • full review of risk factors,
  • family history of cancer and specifically breast cancer,
  • other preventive options such as medications.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy destroys cancer cells with high energy rays. There are two ways to administer radiation therapy.

External beam radiation

This is the usual way radiation therapy is given for breast cancer. A beam of radiation is focused onto the affected area by an external machine. The extent of the treatment is determined by a health-care team and is based on the surgical procedure performed and whether lymph nodes were affected or not.

The local area will usually be marked after the radiation team has determined the exact location for the treatments. Usually, the treatment is given five days a week for five to six weeks.

Brachytherapy

This form of delivering radiation uses radioactive seeds or pellets. Instead of a beam from the outside delivering the radiation, these seeds are implanted into the breast next to the cancer.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is treatment of cancers with medications that travel through the bloodstream to the cancer cells. These medications are given either by intravenous injection or by mouth.

Chemotherapy can have different indications and may be performed in different settings as follows:

Adjuvant chemotherapy: If surgery has removed all the visible cancer, there is still the possibility that cancer cells have broken off or are left behind. If chemotherapy is given to assure that these small amounts of cells are killed as well, it is called adjunct chemotherapy.

Neoadjuvant chemotherapy: If chemotherapy is given before surgery, it is referred to as neoadjuvant chemotherapy. Although there seems to be no advantage to long-term survival whether the therapy is given before or after surgery, there are advantages to see if the cancer responds to the therapy and by shrinking the cancer before surgical removal.

Chemotherapy for advanced cancer: If the cancer has metastasized to distant sites in the body, chemotherapy can be used for treatment. In this case, the health-care team will need to determine the most appropriate length of treatment.

There are many different chemotherapeutic agents that are either given alone or in combination. Usually, these drugs are given in cycles with certain treatment intervals followed by a rest period. The cycle length and rest intervals differ from drug to drug.

Hormone therapy

This therapy is often used to help reduce the risk of cancer reoccurrence after surgery, but it can also be used as adjunct treatment.

Estrogen (a hormone produced by the ovaries) promotes the growth of a few breast cancers, specifically those containing receptors for estrogen (ER positive) or progesterone (PR positive). The following drugs are used in hormone therapy:

  • Tamoxifen (Nolvadex): This drug prevents estrogen from binding to estrogen receptors on breast cells.
  • Toremifene (Fareston) works similar to Tamoxifen and is only indicated in metastatic breast cancer.
  • Fulvestrant (Faslodex): This drug eliminates the estrogen receptor and can be used even if tamoxifen is no longer useful.
  • Aromatase inhibitors: They stop estrogen production in postmenopausal women. Examples are letrozole (Femara), anastrozole (Arimidex), and exemestane (Aromasin).

Targeted therapy

As we are learning more about gene changes and their involvement in causing cancer, drugs are being developed that specifically target the cancer cells. They tend to have fewer side effects then chemotherapy (as they target only the cancer cells) but usually are still used in adjunct with chemotherapy.

Targeting HER2/Neu protein

Monoclonal antibody: Trastuzumab is an engineered protein that attaches to the HER2/Neu protein on breast cancer cells. It helps slow the growth of the cancer cell and may also stimulate the immune system to attack the cancer cell more effectively.

It is given IV either once a week or every three weeks. The following are other examples of drugs targeting HER2 cells.

  • Pertuzumab (Perjeta)
  • Lapatinib (Tykerb)
  • Ado-trastuzumab (Kadcyla): A combination drug of a HER2 targeting drug that releases a cell-killing drug once attached to the cancer cells.

Each one of these drugs has very specific indication and uses depending on other therapies already in progress.

Alternative treatments

Whenever a disease has the potential for much harm and death, physicians search for alternative treatments. As a patient or the loved one of a patient, there may be an inclination to try everything and leave no option unexplored. The danger in this approach is usually found in the fact that the patient might not avail themselves of existing, proven therapies. One should discuss any interest in alternative treatments with a health-care team and together explore the different options.

Return to Breast Cancer

See what others are saying

Comment from: BJ, 45-54 Female (Patient) Published: October 22

I had mastectomy of the left breast and 18 lymph nodes removed (16 positive). I had chemotherapy and radiation and I am currently on Arimidex.

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Comment from: sherl, 45-54 Female (Patient) Published: April 22

I"m a 2 times breast cancer patient. I was in remission for 15 years. In 2009 I had a radical mastectomy. Fifteen lymph nodes were removed and reconstructive surgery done, and 8 rounds of chemotherapy. The chemotherapy saved my life. I was diagnosed with carcinoma from a needle biopsy. Having early intervention and early treatment can save lives.

Was this comment helpful?Yes

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