Breast Cancer Treatments, Side Effects, and Support

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, you may be overwhelmed by what it means, what you’re feeling and how to decide what to do. The team at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center is by your side to support you with all aspects of breast cancer. We take a comprehensive approach to breast cancer treatment. Your care team includes some of the nation’s top medical, surgical and radiation oncologists, as well as clinical nurse navigators to work closely with you throughout your care.

How Is Breast Cancer Treated?

Banner MD Anderson works with you to create a customized plan to ensure we provide you the most effective strategies possible.

Surgery

Surgery is a common part of most breast cancer treatment. It’s done for different reasons such as to remove the cancer, find out if the cancer has spread, restore the breast’s shape or relieve symptoms.

  • Surgery to Remove Breast Cancer
    • Breast-conserving surgery (lumpectomy, quadrantectomy, partial mastectomy or segmental mastectomy): Only the part of the breast containing the cancer is removed, as well as some surrounding tissue.
    • Mastectomy: The entire breast is removed, including all of the breast tissue and sometimes other nearby tissues. Sometimes the skin and/or nipple can be saved during the mastectomy to help with reconstruction.

Patients in early stages of breast cancer may have the option to have breast-conserving surgery followed by radiation treatment, or a mastectomy. For these patients, studies show when breast-conserving surgery is combined with radiation, survival rates are the same as having a mastectomy.

Mastectomy may be a better option for some women with certain types of breast cancer, a large tumor size, previous treatment with radiation or other factors.

  • Breast Reconstruction
    • Breast reconstruction can be done during breast cancer surgery or in the future. During reconstruction, a plastic surgeon uses an implant or tissue from another part of the body to recreate the breast. Because this procedure is not considered cosmetic surgery, it’s covered by most health insurance plans. Learn more about breast reconstruction options.
  • Radioactive Seed Localization (RSL)
    • RSL can help surgeons accurately locate and remove a breast tumor, sparing healthy tissue. A radioactive seed is a tiny clip with a signal embedded into it.  During the placement of the seed, a mammogram or ultrasound is used to locate the abnormal tissue, and a needle is used to deposit the seed at the tumor site.  During surgery, your surgeon uses a special probe that picks up the signal emitted from the seed to locate the tumor. In this way, the tumor and the seed can then be removed together with excellent precision.
  • Surgery to Remove Lymph Nodes
    • Axillary (underarm) lymph nodes may be removed as part of breast cancer surgery or during a separate procedure. Analysis of the lymph nodes is important to understand the stage of cancer.
      • Sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB): Tracers are injected into the breast to map to the first set of lymph nodes which collect the drainage of the breast.  These lymph nodes are termed sentinel lymph nodes and are the ones that would be affected by breast cancer first.
      • Axillary lymph node dissection (ALND): Almost all of the underarm lymph nodes are removed.
  • Surgery for Advanced Breast Cancer
    • Surgery for more advanced stages of breast cancer likely can’t cure the disease, but it can slow the spread or treat symptoms.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. For breast cancer patients, radiation may be used to:

  • Kill any remaining cancer cells after breast-conserving surgery
  • Reduce tumor size and spread following a mastectomy
  • Treat specific areas of the body affected by metastatic breast cancer, sometimes combined with chemotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapy

Banner MD Anderson offers a variety of radiation therapies. If your care team recommends radiation therapy as part of your treatment, be sure to ask questions about how it works, how you’ll feel and what results to expect. Our team is here to help you get the information you need to be comfortable about making breast cancer treatment decisions.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy drugs kill cancer cells throughout the body. Different drugs are prescribed depending on the type as well as the stage of your cancer and overall health. Chemotherapy drugs to treat breast cancer are usually given as an injection or needle in a vein. But they can also be given orally. Chemotherapy may be used alone, before or after surgery or be combined with radiation therapy.

In some early stages, patients can use gene-expression profiling to predict if they would benefit from chemotherapy or to help assess the likelihood breast cancer will return.

Hormone (Endocrine) Therapy

Hormone therapy uses drugs that either lower estrogen levels or block estrogen from breast cancer cells.

Targeted Therapies

Targeted therapy uses drugs that target specific molecules in invasive breast cancer cell growth and progression.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy uses novel drugs to stimulate the patient’s immune system to fight the cancer. It is currently being used specifically in triple negative breast cancers.

Integrative Therapies

Banner MD Anderson builds every patient’s breast cancer treatment plan specific to her needs. In addition to medical treatment, we offer a full range of integrative therapies to relieve your symptoms and side effects and improve your quality of life. Learn more about our Integrative Oncology Program.

Clinical Trials

Doctors and scientists continually are working to cure breast cancer and improve treatment options. You may qualify for clinical trials for breast cancer therapies. Talk to your Banner MD Anderson care team about clinical trials.

Side Effects of Breast Cancer Treatment

There are a lot of factors to consider when making decisions about your breast cancer treatment, including potential side effects. If you have a question or something is unclear, ask us. We can provide information, resources and tools to help you weigh all your options.

Most breast cancer treatments have side effects. The good news is that most side effects of breast cancer can be treated and ease once treatment is completed.

Across all breast cancer treatment, the most frequently severe side effects include pain, skin irritation and constipation. Depending on the treatment, you may experience:

  • Surgery – pain and lymphedema
  • Hormone therapy –hot flashes, joint pain and bone thinning
  • Chemotherapy – hair loss, diarrhea, neuropathy, fatigue and mouth sores
  • Radiation therapy – itching, soreness and peeling skin
  • Targeted therapies – vomiting, fatigue and diarrhea

Resources and Support for Breast Cancer Patients

We now offer new ways of preventing hair loss during chemotherapy using the newly approved scalp cooling cap. These cooling caps can prevent hair loss in up to 75% of women.

Making sure you’re physically comfortable, free from pain and emotionally supported is extremely important to all of us at Banner MD Anderson. Be open with us about your feelings, preferences and concerns. We’re here to help.

Get more information on Banner MD Anderson’s support services, including breast cancer support groups, with our Integrative Oncology Program.