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Breast Cancer: Treatments

Breast cancer treatment is based on many factors, including type and stage of the cancer, whether the cancer is sensitive to certain hormones and whether or not the cancer overproduces a gene called HER2/neu.

In general, cancer treatments may include:

  • Chemotherapy medicines to kill cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy to destroy cancerous tissue.
  • Surgery to remove cancerous tissue. A lumpectomy removes the breast lump, while a mastectomy removes all or part of the breast and possible nearby structures.

Other treatments:

  • Endocrine therapy to block certain hormones that fuel cancer growth. (Also known as hormone modulation therapy.)
  • Targeted therapy to interfere with cancer cell grow and function.

An example of hormonal therapy is the drug tamoxifen. This drug blocks the effects of estrogen, which can help breast cancer cells survive and grow. Most women with estrogen sensitive breast cancer benefit from this drug. A newer class of medicines called aromatase inhibitors, such as exemestane (Aromasin, Letrozole, Arimidex, or Femara and Anastrozole), have been shown to work just as well or even better than tamoxifen in post-menopausal women with breast cancer.

Targeted therapy, also called biologic therapy, is a newer type of cancer treatment. This therapy uses special anti-cancer drugs that identify certain changes in a cell that can lead to cancer. One such drug is trastuzumab (Herceptin). For women with stage IV HER2-positive breast cancer, Herceptin plus chemotherapy has been shown to be work better than chemotherapy alone. Studies have also shown that in women with early stage HER2-positive breast cancer, this medicine plus chemotherapy cuts the risk of the cancer coming back by 50 percent.

Cancer treatment may be local or systemic:

  • Local treatments involve only the area of disease. Radiation and surgery are forms of local treatment.
  • Systemic treatments affect the entire body. Chemotherapy is a type of systemic treatment.

Most women receive a combination of treatments. For women with stage I, II or III breast cancer, the main goal is to treat the cancer and prevent it from returning. For women with stage IV cancer, the goal is to improve symptoms and help them live longer. In most cases, stage IV breast cancer cannot be cured.

  • Stage 0 (DCIS): Lumpectomy plus radiation or mastectomy is the standard treatment. There is some controversy on how best to treat DCIS.
  • Stage I and II: Lumpectomy plus radiation or mastectomy with some sort of lymph node removal is standard treatment. Endocrine therapy, chemotherapy, and biologic therapy may also be recommended following surgery.
  • Stage III: Treatment involves surgery possibly followed by chemotherapy, endocrine therapy, and biologic therapy.
  • Stage IV: Treatment may involve surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, endocrine therapy or a combination of such treatments, and sometimes bisphosphonates (intravenous bone strengtheners).

After treatment, some women will continue on medications such as tamoxifen for a period of time. All women will continue to have blood tests, mammograms and other tests following treatment.

Last updated: 5/12/2010 4:19:34 PM