The exact treatment prescribed for you will be based on the stage and characteristics of your breast cancer. It’s important to talk to your oncology team if you have any specific questions about your particular treatment.
Treatment is often classified into local therapy or systemic therapy. Local therapy means that it only treats the breast, and not any other parts of the body. Systemic therapy is treatment that goes around your entire body, treating cancer cells that may be present outside of the breast. A combination of local and systemic therapy may be given for breast cancer.
This article will focus on the local therapy options for breast cancer – surgery and radiation.
Surgery is often used in early stage breast cancer. Surgery can involve removing only the area of cancer along with a small area of healthy tissue around it (called a lumpectomy or partial mastectomy) or the removal of the entire breast (called a mastectomy).
Nearby lymph nodes may also be removed during surgery as well. The two types of these are called a sentinel lymph node (SLN) biopsy, and an axillary lymph node dissection. During a SLN biopsy, the first lymph node leaving the breast is identified by using a special dye. It’s then removed and checked for cancer cells. During an axillary lymph node dissection, many lymph nodes are removed from under the armpit of the side of the body where the breast cancer originated.
When you consult with a surgeon, they will review your records, likely do a physical exam, and talk with you about the best surgical option.
Radiation therapy uses high energy beams of radiation to treat the entire breast and kill any remaining breast cancer cells. This is often done after a breast biopsy or a lumpectomy. The radiation will most likely be given Monday through Friday for a period of about 6 weeks. Each treatment takes only a few minutes. This type of radiation is called external beam radiation.
There are some other forms of radiation, called brachytherapy, where seeds of radiation are placed within the cavity of the breast left by surgery. This can treat the area locally and help reduce the risk of recurrence. Sometimes it can even be given during surgery. Brachytherapy is not used as often as external beam radiation.