Over the past 20 years, progress in both early detection and treatment has led to improved survival for people of all ages and races, and with all stages of breast cancer. Between 1990 and 2009, breast cancer mortality (death) declined by 33 percent among women in the United States .
Breast cancer treatment
The goal of treating early breast cancer is to get rid of the cancer and keep it from coming back. Treatment for early breast cancer includes some combination of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapy. These treatments are designed to remove the cancer from the breast and destroy any small amounts of cancer that might still be in the body.
Learn about treating metastatic (advanced, stage IV) breast cancer.
Your breast cancer treatment plan
Your breast cancer treatment plan is based on both medical and personal choices. It is tailored to:
- Your specific type of breast cancer (the biology of the tumor)
- The stage of the breast cancer
- Other medical issues
- Your personal preferences
Because of the differences between tumors and between people, your treatment plan may differ from another person’s, even though you both have breast cancer. Each treatment option has risks and benefits to consider with your own values and lifestyle.
Treatment for breast cancer can be thought of in two areas: local therapy and systemic therapy.
Local therapy removes the cancer from a limited (local) area, such as the breast, chest wall and lymph nodes in the underarm area (axillary nodes). It also helps to ensure the cancer does not recur (come back) to that area. It involves surgery, with or without radiation therapy to the breast area.
Systemic therapy (adjuvant therapy)
Systemic therapy aims to get rid of cancer cells that may have spread from the breast to other parts of the body. It uses drug therapies (either in IV or pill form) that travel throughout the body to get rid of cancer cells. Systemic therapy includes chemotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapy. Because systemic therapy is an adjunct to (or in addition to) breast surgery, these treatments are often called adjuvant therapy.
Learn about factors that affect treatment options.
Learn about financial issues related to treatment.
How does your age affect your treatment plan?
No matter your age, your treatment plan depends on many factors, such as the type of breast cancer you have and the characteristics of the tumor. Your overall health and any other health conditions you may have also play a role in your treatment plan. For example, if you have heart disease, some medications used to treatment breast cancer can cause more harm than good. All of these things help tailor your treatment plan.
Young women with breast cancer may have special concerns about early menopause and loss of fertility due to treatment. Learn about these issues for young women with breast cancer. .
Your health care team
Throughout your treatment and beyond, you will receive care from many health care providers. Your health care team may include:
- Physicians (oncologists, surgeons, radiation oncologists, radiologists and pathologists)
- Social workers
- Physical therapists
- Palliative care specialists
- Patient navigators
- Other providers
These professionals may be involved in your care during diagnosis, treatment and recovery.
Learn about choosing a physician.
You may find it helpful to create a notebook or other organizer to keep track of your breast cancer treatments and your health care team. A three-ring binder often works well. The notebook should include:
- A directory of the names, addresses and contact information for your health care team
- Insurance information
- Medication lists
- Pharmacy contact information
- Other medical information
- Calendar to help plan and keep track of appointments
- Blank paper to write down questions (and answers), or to record any side effects you are having or other information for your health care team
- Pockets to store materials
The importance of following your breast cancer treatment plan
Completing your breast cancer treatment plan (called adherence or compliance) is very important. People who complete the full course of treatment have a higher chance of survival. Adherence may be hard, but there are things you can do to make it easier.
First, talk to your health care provider if you are having trouble following your treatment plan. If you are suffering from side effects, tell your provider right away. He/she may be able to help. Having fewer side effects can help you complete your treatment plan.
Adherence can be especially hard for long-term treatments, such as hormone therapy. Planning ahead can help you juggle your treatment and daily life. For example, if you have trouble remembering to take your pills, a daily pillbox or setting an alarm on your watch or cell phone may help .
Learn more about adherence.
Insurance issues and financial, transportation and lodging assistance
Insurance issues may be a major concern when you are undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Sometimes, paying for medications and other out-of-pocket expenses can be a challenge. Learn about insurance coverage and financial assistance programs.
If you need help getting to and from treatments or if you (or your family) need a place to stay overnight while getting treatment, there are programs that can help. Learn about transportation and lodging assistance.