Treatment of breast cancer

The aim of treatment is to stop any spread of the cancer and, if possible to remove all cancer from the body.

In deciding on the most suitable treatment, your doctor will consider the size of the tumour, the type of breast cancer and whether the tumour has spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body. 

The lymph nodes in the armpit are of particular importance. Finding out if the cancer has gone to the lymph nodes is important in planning adjuvant (additional) treatment such as hormone therapy or chemotherapy.

In specialist breast units, plans and recommendations about treatment are discussed by your specialists at a team meeting. These include the surgeon (surgical oncologist), Medical oncologist, (doctor who prescribes anti- cancer drug therapy) radiation oncologist, ( doctor who prescribes radiotherapy), Radiologist (doctor who reads x-rays), pathologist (doctor who looks at cells in the laboratory to diagnose cancer) and the breast care nurses.

Surgery, Radiotherapy, Hormone therapy and Chemotherapy may be used alone, or in combination, to treat breast cancer. Surgery and radiotherapy are referred to as local treatments because they treat only the area where the cancer has occurred.

Chemotherapy and hormone therapy are called systemic treatments because they treat the whole body. Your doctor will plan your treatment by taking into consideration a number of factors, including your age, whether or not you have had the menopause, your general health, the type and size of the tumour and whether it has spread beyond the breast.

You may find that other women at the hospital are having different treatments to you. Remember every patients treatment is planned on an individual basis.

Other treatments for breast cancer

Questions to ask your doctor

If you have any questions about your own treatment don’t be afraid to ask your doctor or nurse. It often helps to make a list of the questions for your doctor and to take a close relative or friend with you to remind you of questions at the time, or of the answers afterwards.

When discussing treatment options such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy, drugs and/or surgery, ask

  • What is the best treatment for me and why?
  • Can you tell me how I can expect to benefit from the chosen treatments?
  • What will it involve and how long will it take?
  • What are the short-term and long-term side effects of the treatment(s)?
  • Can I take steps to minimise side effects?

If you need a surgical procedure such as lumpectomy, local excisions or mastectomy, ask

  • How much tissue will you remove and will you remove lymph nodes to see if my cancer has spread?
  • Can I have a breast reconstruction at the same time as surgery?
  • What complications could arise after surgery?
  • How soon can I be operated on and how long will I be in hospital?

After surgery questions

  • Do I need further treatment(s) such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy, tamoxifen etc and why?
  • What exercise should I do to prevent lymphoedema (arm swelling) and ease general movement, and for how long should I do them?Before chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment, ask
  • How will I benefit from treatment?
  • How many courses will I need, and how long will they take?
  • What will be the short-term and long-term side effects (i.e. hair loss, loss of fertility, skin irritation)?
  • What can I do to minimise these side effects?
  • During chemotherapy, will the nurses on have the appropriate training?

After treatment, ask

  • How often will I need check-ups and how often should I check my breasts?
  • What is the chance of the cancer returning?