The Different Types of Breast Cancer Treatment

Medical technology has come a long way. And, thanks to the large investment in breast cancer treatment research, there are more options for patients to consider. 

Breast cancer treatments are used to stop the progression of the illness, shrink tumors and send patients into remission. Read on to find out more about the types of interventions, what they involve and the breast cancer stages at which they’re used.

The Different Types of Breast Cancer Treatment

Types of breast cancer treatment

There are a variety of avenues for treating breast cancer. The type – or types – of breast cancer treatment that will be most effective will depend on the kind of breast cancer a patient has, the stage of the illness when it’s diagnosed and their medical history.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common interventions for breast cancer.

Surgery

Mastectomy and lumpectomy are the two types of surgery that are used to treat breast cancer. A mastectomy is the surgical removal of either one or both of the breasts (known as a double mastectomy). Lumpectomies, or breast-conserving surgeries (BCS), focus on the removal of a tumor along with a small amount of healthy tissue surrounding the mass.

Reconstructive surgery is often used as a complementary treatment. You may choose to have breast implants or a tissue flap procedure – where muscle and tissue from elsewhere in your body is used to reshape the breast – after a mastectomy. For lumpectomy patients, oncoplastic surgery, where both breasts are reconstructed to look similar, could be an option.

While removing cancerous tissue from the breast is usually the main aim of surgery, it can also be used to examine the axillary and mammary lymph nodes. This allows doctors to get a better understanding of the progression of the illness in a particular patient.

Chemotherapy

Likely the most recognizable of the breast cancer treatments, chemotherapy uses a combination of drugs to destroy cancer cells. These drugs are usually administered in a number of cycles over a set period of time. For example, every week or every two weeks over three months.

Chemotherapy works by preventing cancer cells from growing, dividing and multiplying. This makes it a helpful pre-surgery treatment (known as neoadjuvant chemotherapy), as it can be used to shrink a tumor to make surgery easier. It’s also a useful post-surgery intervention (adjuvant chemotherapy), helping to reduce the risk of recurrence.

The combination of drugs used will depend on the stage of breast cancer you have as well as your medical history. The mix of medications has the potential to cause side effects such as nausea and vomiting, hair loss, fatigue, loss of appetite and others. However, these can often be managed using supporting treatments during chemotherapy.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy, also known as photon therapy, uses high-energy X-rays to destroy cancer cells. It’s most commonly used after surgery and adjuvant chemotherapy to ensure that no cancer cells remain in the patient’s body.

There are a few forms of this localized treatment; the most widely used being external beam radiation therapy (EBRT). With this intervention, radiation is aimed directly at the breast to target the tissue and eradicate cancerous cells. 

Partial breast irradiation (PBI), where radiation therapy is targeted directly at the tumor rather than the entire breast, is another popular treatment. It’s commonly used after a lumpectomy as it allows for greater precision. 

Radiation is administered over a set number of weeks and can cause side effects like breast swelling, pain, redness and burning of the skin, and others. The length of a round of treatment will depend on the stage of cancer and the types of treatment you’ve received prior to radiation.

Hormonal therapy

Patients who have breast cancer tumors that test positive estrogen (ER positive) or progesterone (PR positive) can be treated with hormonal or endocrine therapy. These tumors use hormones to fuel their growth and blocking these chemical messengers can help to prevent recurrence of the cancer.

The course of hormonal treatment used will depend on whether you have experienced menopause. Tamoxifen, a selective estrogen receptor modulator, blocks estrogen from binding to breast cancer cells and can be used by all women. 

Ovarian suppression drugs as well as ovarian ablation (removal of the ovaries) is often recommended for women who have gone through menopause. If this is the case, you will also take aromatase inhibitors, which decrease the amount of estrogen made in other parts of the body.

Hormone therapy will most likely be used on its own or in combination with surgery and/or chemotherapy. It’s usually administered at least three to six months before surgical intervention and continued after the procedure.

Immunotherapy

Rather than using therapies or medications to attack cancer cells, immunotherapy focuses on fighting breast cancer by strengthening your immune system. This approach either bolsters naturally occurring antibodies or introduces synthetic immunoglobulins to your system.

Some types of monoclonal (laboratory-made) antibodies can be used to block certain proteins that lead to the duplication of cancer cells. Others, along with checkpoint inhibitors and T-cell therapy, ensure that your body is able to recognize cancer cells and that these cells are prevented from blocking your immune system’s response to the illness.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapies target specific cancer cell genes and proteins; hormonal therapies are a good example. These treatments help to stunt the cancer’s growth and reduce its chances of survival. 

The type of targeted therapy used will depend on the specific genes, proteins and other attributes of your tumor. For instance, PARP and CDK4/6 inhibitors can be used to treat some breast cancers in women who test positive for one of the BRCA mutations.

Breast cancer treatment by stage

The preferred treatment will depend largely on the stage of breast cancer you are diagnosed with as well as your medical history. The following are the most common interventions for each stage:

    • Stage 0: Surgery and hormone therapy (where appropriate)
    • Stage I: Surgery, radiation therapy and hormone therapy
    • Stage II: Neoadjuvant chemotherapy, surgery (usually BCS) and adjuvant chemotherapy, plus radiation therapy
    • Stage III: Neoadjuvant chemotherapy, surgery (either BCS or mastectomy), plus adjuvant chemotherapy and radiation therapy
    • Stage IV: Hormone therapy, immunotherapy, chemotherapy and targeted therapies

While there are many different treatment options available, the best options are when breast cancer is detected early

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