Cancer treatment has advanced over the years, and we have ended up with many options to choose from. The emphasis is now placed on personalization, with institutions and practitioners tailoring treatment to be uniquely suited to you and your cancer. Some of the most recommended interventions for breast cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radiation, and targeted therapy. With the right treatment and support, many breast cancer patients can successfully manage the condition and enjoy a long and healthy life.
How Is Breast Cancer Treated?
Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers and can be life-threatening. Fortunately, there are a variety of treatments that can manage and even cure breast cancer. Below are some widely used treatments that your doctor could recommend for your breast cancer:
In many cases, surgical intervention is the first step in treating breast cancer. There are several types of surgery, each with its unique benefits and risks. A lumpectomy or mastectomy followed by radiation therapy is often the standard of care for early-stage breast cancer.
- Lumpectomy (breast-conserving surgery that removes only the cancerous tumour and a small amount of surrounding healthy tissue)
- Mastectomy (removal of the entire breast, including the nipple and surrounding tissue)
Radiation therapy (or radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to target and destroy cancer cells. This treatment is often used after surgery to eliminate any remaining cancer cells and reduce the risk of recurrence. There are different types of radiation therapy, depending on your needs.
- External Beam Radiation (the most common type of radiation therapy, where a machine directs radiation to the affected area from outside the body)
- Internal Radiation (also known as brachytherapy, involves small implants placed in or near the tumour which emit radiation to destroy cancer cells)
Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment that uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells throughout the body. It can be administered orally or intravenously and is often used in combination with other treatments. For patients with aggressive or advanced breast cancer, chemotherapy combined with targeted therapy may be beneficial.
Targeted therapy is a newer form of treatment that specifically targets the proteins and other factors that contribute to cancer growth. These therapies can be used alone or in combination with other treatments to improve their effectiveness and minimise side effects.
- HER2-targeted Therapy (HER2 is a protein found in some breast cancer cells and promotes their growth, which these therapies target to stop cancer growth)
- CDK4/6 Inhibitors (block the activity of specific enzymes involved in cell division, leading to slower cancer growth and longer survival rates)
Hormone therapy is a systemic treatment that targets hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, which can stimulate the growth of certain types of breast cancer. This is an essential treatment for hormone receptor-positive breast cancer, as it helps to reduce the risk of recurrence.
- Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators (block the effects of estrogen on breast tissue, preventing cancer growth)
- Aromatase Inhibitors (block the production of estrogen in postmenopausal women, slowing the growth of hormone receptor-positive breast cancer)
Newer treatments such as immunotherapy may also be an option for certain breast cancer types.
How Do Treatments Compare?
Leading institutions in medical research and patient care generally recommend a multidisciplinary approach to breast cancer treatment, including surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy. The success rates of breast cancer treatments vary depending on the individual's specific circumstances, such as the type and stage of cancer, and the chosen treatment.
Your medical team should be able to inform you of any current clinical trial options, as this is a way to access cutting-edge therapies while helping with the advancement of breast cancer research. Nevertheless, it is good to have some understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of common treatments before speaking to your doctors.
Lumpectomy and Mastectomy
A lumpectomy and mastectomy are both surgical options for treating breast cancer. The choice between these procedures depends on the type and stage of cancer, the patient's preferences, and their overall health.
The benefits of a lumpectomy include preservation of breast tissue, shorter recovery time (compared to mastectomy), less invasive therefore fewer potential complications, and often a better cosmetic outcome. However, this procedure has a higher risk of local recurrence (compared to mastectomy) and may require additional radiation to combat recurrence. This option is typically recommended for early-stage breast cancer patients and those with small tumours.
Benefits of a mastectomy include a low risk of recurrence and often no need for radiation therapy (except in some advanced cases). However, the procedure is more invasive and therefore has a longer recovery period. It may also lead to loss of sensation in the chest area, and breast reconstruction could be required for cosmetic purposes. A mastectomy might be a necessary procedure in the case of more advanced or aggressive breast cancer.
Radiotherapy, Chemotherapy, Targeted Therapy, And Hormone Therapy
Radiation therapy is a localised treatment, which means that it targets cancer cells in a specific area without affecting the rest of the body, unlike chemotherapy which affects the whole system. While chemotherapy affects both cancerous and healthy cells, targeted therapy specifically targets proteins or other factors that contribute to cancer growth. Targeted therapy and hormone therapy have similarities in that they both work to disrupt the growth and survival of cancer cells, however, they do this through different mechanisms.
Radiation therapy is effective in reducing the risk of breast cancer recurrence after surgery and is generally a well-established treatment that has been used for many years with high success rates. However, radiotherapy can cause side effects such as skin irritation, fatigue, and changes in breast appearance, and may not be suitable for all patients, such as those with certain medical conditions.
The benefits of chemotherapy are that it can be effective against various types of cancer and used in combination with other treatments to improve their effectiveness (neoadjuvant or adjuvant chemotherapy). However, this medication can cause significant side effects by damaging healthy cells, and there are certain cancer types for which it is not always effective.
The benefits of targeted therapy are that the action is focused only on cancer cells, and can be effective against specific subtypes such as HER2-positive breast cancer. Targeted therapy also has fewer side effects compared to chemotherapy. However, it may not be effective for all breast cancer types and can be an expensive treatment.
Hormone therapy can be effective for hormone receptor-positive breast cancer (these account for a large percentage of cases) and may be used to reduce the risk of recurrence after surgery. Unfortunately, this treatment is not effective for hormone receptor-negative breast cancer and can cause side effects such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and joint pain.
What Is The Best Treatment For My Breast Cancer?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer for the best breast cancer treatment, as it depends on your unique circumstances. However, the treatments discussed here are widely recognized for their effectiveness and are recommended by both patients and medical organisations.
The best treatment for breast cancer depends on factors such as the type and stage of cancer, your overall health, age, and personal preferences. To assess the most suitable treatment, you will need to consult with a team of medical professionals, including oncologists, surgeons, and radiologists, and ensure that you have a thorough understanding of your diagnosis.
Speak to your medical team about factors such as success rates, potential side effects, recovery time, and the impact on your quality of life. It may even be helpful to reach out to support groups or online forums to gather firsthand experiences and insights from others who have undergone similar treatments.
Another consideration is the location and reputation of the treatment centre, as well as the experience of the healthcare team. If you are still uncertain about your treatment options or would like to explore alternative approaches, don't hesitate to seek a second opinion. By working with medical teams and other support systems to make a decision, you have a high chance of formulating a treatment plan that is uniquely best for you.