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Mammogram for breast cancerMany women with breast cancer want to take an active part in making decisions about their medical care. It is natural to want to learn all you can about your disease and treatment choices. Knowing more about breast cancer helps many women cope.

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Women with breast cancer have many treatment options. These include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and biological therapy. However, the choice of treatment depends mainly on the stage of the disease and these factors:

  • The size of the tumor in relation to the size of your breast
  • The results of lab tests (such as whether the breast cancer cells need hormones to grow)
  • Whether you have gone through menopause
  • Your general health

Below are brief descriptions of common treatments for each stage. Other treatments may be appropriate for some women. Please consult your doctor for more information.

Stage 0
Stages I, II, IIIA, and Operable IIIC
Stages IIIB and Inoperable IIIC
Stages IV

Stage 0

Stage 0 breast cancer refers to lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) or ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).

LCIS:

Most women with LCIS do not have treatment. Instead, the doctor may suggest regular checkups to watch for signs of breast cancer. Some women take tamoxifen to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. Others may take part in studies of promising new preventive treatments.

Having LCIS in one breast increases the risk of cancer for both breasts. A very small number of women with LCIS try to prevent cancer with surgery to remove both breasts. This is a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy. The surgeon usually does not remove the underarm lymph nodes.


DCIS:

Most women with DCIS have breast-sparing surgery followed by radiation therapy. Some women choose to have a total mastectomy. Underarm lymph nodes are not usually removed. Women with DCIS may receive tamoxifen to reduce the risk of developing invasive breast cancer.

Stages I, II, IIIA, and Operable IIIC

Women with Stage I, II, IIIA, and operable (can treat with surgery) IIIC breast cancer may have a combination of treatments. Some may have breast-sparing surgery followed by radiation therapy to the breast. This choice is common for women with Stage I or II breast cancer. Others decide to have a mastectomy.

With either approach, women (especially those with Stage II or IIIA breast cancer) often have lymph nodes under the arm removed. The doctor may suggest radiation therapy after mastectomy if cancer cells are found in 1 to 3 lymph nodes under the arm, or if the tumor in the breast is large. If cancer cells are found in more than 3 lymph nodes under the arm, the doctor usually will suggest radiation therapy after mastectomy.

The choice between breast-sparing surgery (followed by radiation therapy) and mastectomy depends on many factors:

  • The size, location, and stage of the tumor
  • The size of the woman’s breast
  • Certain features of the cancer
  • How the woman feels about saving her breast
  • How the woman feels about radiation therapy
  • The woman’s ability to travel to a radiation treatment center

Some women have chemotherapy before surgery. This is neoadjuvant therapy (treatment before the main treatment). Chemotherapy before surgery may shrink a large tumor so that breast-sparing surgery is possible. Women with large Stage II or IIIA breast tumors often choose this treatment.

After surgery, many women receive adjuvant therapy. Adjuvant therapy is treatment given after the main treatment to increase the chances of a cure. Radiation treatment can kill cancer cells in and near the breast. Women also may have systemic treatment such as chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or both. This treatment can destroy cancer cells that remain anywhere in the body. It can prevent the cancer from coming back in the breast or elsewhere.


Stages IIIB and Inoperable IIIC

Women with Stage IIIB (including inflammatory breast cancer) or inoperable Stage IIIC breast cancer usually have chemotherapy. (Inoperable cancer means it cannot be treated with surgery.)

If the chemotherapy shrinks the tumor, the doctor then may suggest further treatment:

1. Mastectomy

The surgeon removes the breast. In most cases, the lymph nodes under the arm are removed. After surgery, a woman may receive radiation therapy to the chest and underarm area.

2. Breast-sparing surgery

The surgeon removes the cancer but not the breast. In most cases, the lymph nodes under the arm are removed. After surgery, a woman may receive radiation therapy to the breast and underarm area.

3. Radiation therapy instead of surgery

Some women have radiation therapy but no surgery. The doctor also may recommend more chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or both. This therapy may help prevent the disease from coming back in the breast or elsewhere.

Stage IV

In most cases, women with Stage IV breast cancer have hormone therapy, chemotherapy, or both. Some also may have biological therapy. Radiation may be used to control tumors in certain parts of the body. These treatments are not likely to cure the disease, but they may help a woman live longer.

Many women have supportive care along with anticancer treatments. Anticancer treatments are given to slow the progress of the disease. Supportive care helps manage pain, other symptoms, or side effects (such as nausea). It does not aim to extend a woman’s life. Supportive care can help a woman feel better physically and emotionally. Some women with advanced cancer decide to have only supportive care.

To get a better understanding of different treatment options, read Types of Cancer Treatments.

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