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Breast cancer treatment

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Breast cancer treatment often involves more than one approach. The treatment plan your doctor suggests will be based on several factors, such as:

  • The stage of the cancer
  • The size of the tumor compared to the size of your breast
  • The type of breast cancer you have
  • Whether you have reached menopause
  • Your general health

Don't be afraid to ask your doctor lots of questions or to meet with other doctors. The better you understand your options, the easier it will be for you to make an informed choice about treatment.

Staging

After breast cancer is found, your doctor will need to learn the extent of the cancer. This is called staging. The stage is based on:

  • The tumor size
  • Whether the cancer has spread to nearby tissue
  • Whether the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes or other parts of the body

Many tests may be used to learn this information. A woman's treatment options depend greatly on the cancer stage. Often, the stage is not known until after a woman has surgery to remove the cancer from her breast.

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Types of treatment

Women with breast cancer may have one or more of these treatments:

  • Surgery – Surgery is the most common treatment for breast cancer. The goal of surgery is to remove all the cancer from the breast. Many women are able to have surgery that removes the cancer but leaves the breast intact. Other women may have their entire breast removed. Plastic surgery to rebuild the breast, called breast reconstruction, often can be done at the same time as breast cancer surgery. Women who are thinking about breast reconstruction should talk to a plastic surgeon before having cancer surgery.
  • Radiation therapy – High-energy x-rays or other types of radiation are used to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing.
  • Chemotherapy – Drugs are used to kill cancer cells or keep them from dividing.
  • Hormone therapy – The hormone estrogen causes some types of breast cancer to grow. Hormone therapy reduces the body’s ability to make hormones or stops their action to keep cancer from growing.
  • Targeted therapy – Drugs or other substances are used to find and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells.

For many women, breast cancer does not come back after treatment. For some women, breast cancer comes back after a period of time when it could not be detected. This is called recurrent breast cancer. It may return close to the location of the original tumor or in another part of the body. Treatment options depend on where the cancer returned.

New cancer treatments are being studied. Some women with breast cancer may be able to benefit from new cancer treatments by taking part in clinical trials. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment. Learn about clinical trials for women with breast cancer.

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Help and support

If you just found out you have breast cancer, you are likely to feel afraid and overwhelmed. You might be worried about your family, your job, and the unknown. The waiting between doctor visits might seem endless. Or things might be happening so quickly that you feel like you have no control. Even though you have a lot to think about and big decisions to make, you may feel stuck, unsure how to take the next step.

Take heart — information about breast cancer, its treatment, and breast reconstruction is plentiful. Turn to resources you can trust. To learn more about breast cancer and its treatment, you also can speak with a National Cancer Institute Information Specialist via a live online text chat or by calling 800-4-CANCER (800-422-6237).

Whatever you do, make sure to take good care of yourself before, during, and after treatment. Eat healthy foods and stay as active as you can. Also, don't take on breast cancer alone. Turn to loved ones and friends for support. Think about joining a support group for women with breast cancer. Women in treatment and breast cancer survivors can be an amazing source of strength during and after your treatment.

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More information on Breast cancer treatment

Read more from womenshealth.gov

  • Breast Cancer Fact Sheet - This fact sheet provides information on why women should be concerned about breast cancer and gives resources for more information.
  • Early-stage Breast Cancer Treatment Fact Sheet - This fact sheet addresses questions that women commonly have about breast cancer and its treatment. It explains the two surgical options used to treat early-stage breast cancer and lists resources for patients seeking more information.

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Content last updated November 17, 2010.

Resources last updated November 17, 2010.

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