- Women's Health
Treatment Options For Breast Cancer
Breast Cancer - An Overview
Breast cancer is by far the most common form of cancer found in women. Although, the term "breast cancer" is familiar to most people - very few know the exact disease process of breast cancer. To understand breast cancer, one needs to know the cell division process. In the normal course, the cells of the breast divide in a regular fashion. In breast cancer patients though, the cells of the breast continue to divide despite there being no need for new cells. This excessive proliferation of cells can lead to formation of a mass or tumor - this can be benign (harmless) or malignant (cancer causing). The benign form does not spread to other parts of the body. However, the malignant form can spread to other adjacent tissues/organs (a process called metastasis or shifting of disease from one part to the other). The treatment goal in breast cancer patients is to use methods that kill cancer cells and prevent the recurrence of cancer in the original location or spread of cancer to other locations. Basically, breast cancer treatment involves using 3-4 treatment options.
Treatments For Breast Cancer - The Various Options
The Surgical Option:
Most women view the surgical option with dread, assuming that surgery means removal of the breast (mastectomy). However, this may not always be necessitated. Especially if the breast cancer is at an early stage, breast-conserving surgeries may be performed. These surgeries involve only partial removal of a part of the breast. It is worth noting though that in certain women, mastectomy is recommended even if the breast cancer is at an early stage - primarily because of their increased risk factor of developing breast cancer later on. This increased risk factor could primarily be because of strong family history of breast cancer.
Talking of breast-conserving surgeries, these would involve procedures such as partial mastectomy, lumpectomy (removal of a benign or malignant lump in the breast), or wide excision. In these surgeries, only the affected area of the breast and possibly a bit of the surrounding healthy tissue is removed. This in combination with radiation therapy proves to be as good as having a mastectomy done. Do remember though that the doctor takes the final call on whether you are eligible for a breast-conserving surgery as opposed to total mastectomy (total removal of the breast).
Total Mastectomy / Modified Radical Mastectomy: As discussed above, this involves removal of the entire breast. This may involve removal of lymph nodes (bean-shaped nodules under the arm). Patients undergoing this procedure may require additional radiation therapy after the surgery.
The basic treatment goal of radiation therapy is to kill as much of the cancer cells as possible without affecting the normal healthy tissue of the breast. One form of radiation therapy is:
EBRT or External Beam Radiation Therapy:
This basically involves a machine which directs x-rays (radiation) at the cancer cells in your breast. The aim is to direct as much of the radiation at the cancer cells rather than the surrounding healthy breast tissue. However, inevitably healthy tissue surrounding the cancerous area also get affected and this is one of the side effects of radiation therapy. Compared to the past though, this unintended damage to normal tissue is much lesser these days. The duration of treatment is determined by the radiation oncologist. The duration per session lasts only a few minutes; however, the total duration of the treatment course could range anywhere from a month to close to 2 months. Radiation therapy is generally used as a curative treatment in the early stages of breast cancer, before the cancer has spread. Radiation therapy after this stage (after the spread of cancer) is generally used to relieve secondary effects such as weakness and pain.
There are newer forms of radiation treatments like IMRT or intensity modulated treatment, which allow for more focused and precise dosage. Whether this is available in your area or indeed if you really require this treatment is best judged by your doctor.
Another Form of Radiation Therapy:
Another form of radiation therapy is called "brachytherapy." This differs from external beam radiation therapy, in that the distance between the source of radiation and the treatment area (the breast) is much shorter. Whereas external beam radiation therapy uses a machine to deliver radiation from about 40 inches away, brachytherapy delivers radiation directly to the cancer cells - this is achieved with use of a radioactive implant (usually radioactive seeds) which can be removed later. This method can reduce the unintended damage to surrounding healthy tissue, while providing a more robust dose to the cancer site.
This is a method in which drugs are used to kill the cancer cells. As with radiation therapy, chemotherapy has side effects too because normal cells can end up being destroyed too along with the cancer cells the treatment was intended for. There are many chemotherapy regimens, which your doctor may recommend depending upon the stage of cancer, type of cancer, etc.
Usually, chemotherapy is administered via a vein, rather than via mouth, although the oral route can be utilized for some forms as well. The number of cycles of chemotherapy you would need would be determined by your oncologist - normally these range from 4 to 8 cycles. Chemotherapy unfortunately has many side effects. Some of these could include:
- Hair loss.
- Tiredness, feeling fatigued.
- Reduced blood counts that could make you susceptible to various infections / bleeding disorders.
- Possible change in voice.
- In women, some side effects could include onset of menopause prematurely, loss of fertility.
Other treatment options include hormone therapy, which includes removal of hormones and stopping of cancer cells from growing and targeted therapy which utilizes certain drugs to target specific cancer cells. There are also new types of treatments in the testing and development phase, which are being carried out by various hospitals. These are called clinical trials. Taking part in a clinical trial is another treatment option to consider.
Disclaimer: The information provided on this article is not intended to replace individual professional medical advice or the opinion of your medical practitioner. Always seek the advice of a qualified medical professional.