A diagnosis of breast cancer means you will be faced with a number of decisions about treatments. Try to gather as much information as possible about your treatment options and don’t be afraid to ask questions. You need good information to make the best decisions for you and your health.
If you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, then the treatment options open to you are likely to include:
There will be a number of different treatment choices available to you depending on your cancer type, the stage of the disease and the hormone receptor and HER2 status of your breast cancer. Remember each person is different and your doctor will discuss with you the best treatment options for the particular type of cancer you have.
Treatment for breast cancer usually involves surgery, but some people may also need radiation therapy, chemotherapy and/or targeted medicines (sometimes called biological therapies).
The aim of surgery is to remove all of the cancer from the breast. The type of surgery you have for breast cancer will depend on the size and location of the tumour and your preference.
The two main types of surgery are:
- A lumpectomy or wide local excision
- A mastectomy
If the tumour is small then the surgeon may be able to remove just the tumour, along with a margin of healthy breast tissue. This means most of the breast is left intact.
This involves the removal of the entire breast and possibly some of the lymph glands (nodes) under the armpit.
The length of time it takes you to recover from surgery will vary. You are likely to be in hospital for a few days and be sore for some time. You’ll need to take things easy for a while, but you will be encouraged to keep active.
Radiation therapy may also be used to treat breast cancer. It is often used if you’ve had a lumpectomy or wide local excision and is sometimes used in conjunction with chemotherapy.
Radiation therapy uses x-ray beams to kill any cancer cells that were not removed during surgery.
In treatment for breast cancer, it’s more common to have external beam radiation, in which x-rays are aimed at the tumour from outside the body. If you have this kind of treatment, you’ll have radiation therapy every day for a period of weeks.
However, in certain cases, some women may be able to have radiation therapy during surgery for breast cancer and therefore will only need one treatment.
As with any treatment, you may experience side-effects during radiation therapy. Side-effects may affect you no matter which area of the body you’re having radiotherapy to. Some side-effects are more common than others. These can include:
- Skin irritation
- Feeling sick (nausea & vomiting)
- Problems with eating and drinking
- Flu-like symptoms (headache, body aches and pain, fever)
- Hair loss.
If you experience any side-effects during radiation treatment, tell your medical team. They are in the best position to help you manage these.
Surgery for breast cancer is often followed by chemotherapy. Chemotherapy medicines work to destroy the cancer cells or control their growth. When you have chemotherapy, you are usually given a combination of two or more medicines intravenously (through the vein).
Chemotherapy is most commonly given every three to four weeks over a period of several months.
Chemotherapy kills quickly growing cells like cancer cells, but can also kill other healthy cells that grow quickly, such as those in the bone marrow, digestive tract and hair follicles. Chemotherapy treatment can lead to a number of side-effects, including:
- Feeling sick (nausea & vomiting)
- Hair loss or hair thinning
- Anaemia (reduced number of blood cells)
- Increased risk of infection
- Mouth ulcers
If you’re experiencing side-effects as a result of chemotherapy, speak to your medical team about the best way to manage these. There are medicines that can be used to effectively control or minimise side-effects.
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