About Breast Cancer Treatment
by Marissa Willman
Breast cancer is one of the leading causes of death in women in the United States, surpassed only by lung cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that approximately 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer annually. While breast cancer claims about 40,000 lives each year, there are more than 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. Various treatment options are available for breast cancer and can be highly successful if the cancer is detected at an early stage.
Surgery may be the first option for breast cancer treatment if the tumor is operable. Lumpectomy surgery is used to remove malignant tumors and prevent them from spreading. Surrounding tissue is also removed. In some cases, the physician may decide the best course of treatment is to partially or fully remove the breast tissue in a procedure known as a mastectomy. In a double mastectomy, tissue from both breasts is removed. Mastectomies are usually performed if the patient is at high risk for recurrence or if many tumors are present.
Breast cancer can be treated with chemotherapy, which is a form of treatment that uses drugs to attack rapidly growing cells. Chemotherapy drugs can be injected or taken orally. Several drugs are used to create specific combinations that will be effective at treating the patient's specific type of breast cancer. Since these drugs target rapidly growing cells, hair follicles, stomach cells and intestinal cells may be affected by chemotherapy. Patients undergoing chemotherapy may experience side effects including hair loss, vomiting or diarrhea.
Radiation therapy uses energy to target and destroy cancerous cells. Radiation therapy utilizes x-rays, proton beams and gamma rays. It is typically administered through an external energy beam or an implant. Radiation treatment is usually directly administered at the cancer site, which limits side effects to the treated area. Side effects include distorted skin pigmentation at the treatment site, soreness in the breasts and swelling. Some patients may experience shortness of breath if the lungs are affected by radiation.
Hormone therapy is a breast cancer treatment option that involves using medication to lower the hormone levels in the cancer patient's body. This form of treatment is successful in treating tumors that are dependent on the female hormone estrogen for growth. While hormone therapy alone cannot cure cancer, it can prevent hormone-dependent tumors from growing or spreading. Hormone therapy may include drugs that prevent the body from allowing estrogen to attach to tumors or medication that prevents the body from producing estrogen altogether.
Each treatment option has side effects that must be considered before undergoing treatment. A treatment plan for breast cancer is usually tailored based on the patient's specific type of breast cancer and its severity. In some cases, a physician may want to combine more than one treatment option to treat the cancer effectively. Oftentimes, surgery may be used to initially remove tumors, and chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be used subsequently to ensure the cancer does not return.