Choosing your doctor

Working with a doctor to guide your breast cancer treatment decisions is key. Determine what you need to do to cultivate a positive partnership with your doctor and when it might be prudent to seek a second opinion.

Finding the right team, one that consists of professionals with whom you are comfortable, makes a big difference in how your treatment will progress. Your physicians should be knowledgeable, of course, but they should also welcome questions and be able to explain your treatment options to you in a way you can understand.
Once you’ve identified your team, your doctors can describe your treatment choices, the expected results, and the possible side affects you may experience.

Standard treatment vs. Clinical trials

Before selecting your breast cancer treatment plan, it’s a good idea to understand the difference between standard treatment and clinical trials so you can make an informed decision about what is right for you.

  • Breast cancer standard treatments are methods that experts agree are appropriate, accepted, and widely used. These standard procedures have proven useful in fighting breast cancer in the past.
  • A breast cancer clinical trial, on the other hand, is an approved research study that some doctors believe has a strong potential to improve standard treatments. When clinical trials demonstrate better results than the standard, that new treatment becomes the standard. Remember, all our current standards were clinical trials at one time.


The most common form of treatment for breast cancer is surgery. This involves removing the tumor and nearby margins. The margin is the surrounding tissue that might be cancerous. The goal of surgery is to remove not only the tumor, but also enough of the margin to be able to test for the spread of the cancer. Once the removed tissue is checked, your post-operative report should tell you if you had “clear margins,” (meaning the tissue farthest away from the breast was free of any cancer cells.)

Surgical options may include a lumpectomy, partial mastectomy, radical mastectomy, and reconstruction.

Either your doctor or a breast surgical oncologist will advise you regarding the surgery options to consider based on specific information about your breast cancer. You can discuss and compare the benefits and risks of each option and describe how well each possible choice can achieve the goal of ridding your body of the primary breast cancer.


Chemotherapy is a breast cancer treatment method that uses a combination of drugs to either destroy cancer cells or slow down the growth of cancer cells.

Chemotherapy is commonly prescribed along with other treatment methods such as hormonal and targeted therapies. It can also be used to shrink a tumor before surgery for easier and safer removal.

If you receive chemotherapy, your doctor will administer it in short courses with several weeks in between to allow your normal cells to recover. This treatment period can be a challenging time emotionally and physically. It is important for you to develop a support team of family or friends that can help comfort and encourage you in this time.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It affects the nearby skin or cells only in the part of the body that is treated with the radiation. Breast cancer radiation therapy may be used to destroy any remaining mutated cells that remain in the breast or armpit area after surgery.


Hormone Therapy

Hormones like estrogen and progesterone are chemicals produced by glands in the body. Normally, these hormones help regulate body cycles, like menstruation. However, sometimes these same hormones can cause cancer to grow.

The pathologist will perform tests on the breast cancer cells to determine if they have receptors that feed on estrogen or progesterone, stimulating their growth. If the cancer cells have these receptors, your doctor may recommend hormone therapy drugs, such as blockers or inhibitors. Both types of drugs help to destroy cancer cells by cutting off their supply of hormones.

Targeted Therapy

In addition to chemotherapy and hormone therapy, there are newer, more effective treatments that can attack specific breast cancer cells without harming normal cells. Currently, these targeted methods are commonly used in combination with traditional chemotherapy. However, targeted drugs often have less severe side effects than standard chemotherapy drugs.
Breast cancer targeted therapy uses drugs that block the growth of breast cancer cells in specific ways. For example, targeted therapy may block the action of an abnormal protein (such as HER2) that stimulates the growth of breast cancer cells. For example, Trastuzumab (Herceptin®) or lapatinib (TYKERB®) may be given to a woman whose lab tests show that her breast tumor has too much HER2.

Nutrition and Physical Activity

It’s important for you to take very good care of yourself before, during, and after cancer treatment. Taking care of yourself includes eating well and staying as active as you can. Do your best to eat the right amount of calories to maintain a good weight. Adequate protein can help to keep up your strength.
Many women find that they feel better when they stay active. Walking, yoga, swimming, and other activities can keep you strong and increase your energy. Exercise may reduce nausea and pain and make treatment easier to handle. It also can help relieve stress. Whatever physical activity you choose, be sure to talk to your doctor before you start.
Also, if your activity causes you pain or other problems, be sure to let your doctor or nurse know.

Follow Up Care

You’ll need regular check-ups after treatment for breast cancer. Check-ups help ensure that any changes in your health are noted and treated if needed. If you have any new health problems between checkups, you should contact your doctor.

Next week we will give information on breast cancer survival facts.

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