Most breast cancers are treated by surgically removing the cancer, or as much of the cancer as possible, and then using one or more other therapies to kill or control any remaining cancer cells. A lumpectomy removes the cancerous tissue while leaving the remaining breast tissue intact. A mastectomy is a more extensive surgical procedure but can vary in the amount of breast and surrounding tissue removed. While mastectomy was once the preferred treatment even in early stage breast cancer, more choices have become available.
Lumpectomy followed by radiation has been demonstrated to be as effective as a mastectomy in treating many early stage breast cancers. In performing either a lumpectomy or mastectomy, a health practitioner may remove some or all of the lymph nodes under the arm and submit them for pathological examination to determine if the cancer has spread.
The use of radiation, chemotherapy, and other drug therapies depends on the woman, on the cancer's characteristics, and on how far the cancer has spread. Drug therapies may include tamoxifen, aromatase inhibitors, and other anti-estrogen drugs that target hormone-sensitive cancers. Those who over-express the HER2/neu protein may benefit from therapy with drugs that target HER2 such as trastuzumab (Herceptin®) and lapatinib. These drugs can substantially improve survival in individuals with HER2-positive invasive breast cancer.
There is a great deal of new research being performed in the field of breast cancer treatment, and a healthcare provider is the best source of information about treatment options. New drugs with fewer side effects than existing therapies are being developed. There are also promising gene-targeting drugs and vaccines, some of which are already being used on a limited, or trial, basis. See the Related Pages section for links to more information on treatment.