Breast Cancer Treatment


Only lung cancer kills more women each year in the United States than
breast cancer does. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that over
184,000 new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in women in 1996 (ACS Breast).
Although these statistics are alarming, there are a number of treatment options
available for those that are diagnosed with breast cancer.
The best way to treat any disease is to prevent it. Since little is
known about breast cancer, there are no established rules for prevention. The
ACS recommends that women age twenty and older perform monthly breast self-exams,
and it also suggests clinical examinations every three years (ACS Breast).
Mammography is also a wonderful tool for detecting tumors; however, there is
conflicting data on when and how often women should have mammograms. What is
known is that mammography is the best way to determine if a palpable lump is
actually cancerous or not.
Treatment methods for breast cancer can be lumped in two major
categories; local or systemic. Local treatments are used to destroy or control
the cancer cells in a specific area of the body. Surgery and radiation therapy
are considered local treatments. Systemic treatments are used to destroy or
control cancer cells anywhere in the body. Chemotherapy and hormonal therapy
are considered systemic treatments.
Surgery is the most common treatment for breast cancer. Although there
are many different types of breast cancer surgery, they all fit into a few basic
categories. An operation that aims to remove most or all of the breast is
called a mastectomy. If at all possible, doctors shy away from mastectomies due
to the side effects which include loss of strength in the closest arm, swelling
of the arm, and limitation of shoulder movement. If a mastectomy must be
performed, the physician will often suggest post surgical reconstruction of the
breast (Kushner 37).
Another type of breast cancer surgery is called breast-sparing surgery.
This category would include lumpectomies and segmental mastectomies. In this
situation, doctors remove only the tumor and make an attempt at sparing the rest
of the breast tissue. These procedures are often followed by radiation therapy
to destroy any cancer cells that may remain in the area. In most cases, the
surgeon also removes lymph nodes under the arm to help determine whether cancer
cells have entered the lymphatic system.
Radiation therapy is another common treatment for breast cancer.
Radiation involves the use of high-energy x-rays to damage cancer cells and
retard further growth. The radiation may come from a radioactive source outside
the body, or it can come from radioactive pellets placed directly in the breasts.
It is not uncommon for a patient to receive both internal and external
radiation. For external radiation, patients must visit the hospital or clinic
each day. When this regimen follows breast-sparing surgery, the treatments are
given five days a week for five to six weeks. At the end of that time, an extra
“boost” of radiation is often given to the place where the tumor was removed.
Hospital stays are required for implant radiation. Some common side effects of
radiation therapy include swelling of the breast and dry skin at the radiation
site.
Chemotherapy is one of the systemic therapies doctors use to fight
breast cancer. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells, and it usually
involves a combination of those drugs. Traditional chemotherapy is administered
in cycles; a treatment period followed by a recovery period, then another
treatment, and so on (NIH 23). Like radiation therapy, chemotherapy can be
administered on an outpatient basis. Although chemotherapy works to kill cancer
cells, some of the side effects almost make treatment unbearable. Common side
effects include nausea, decrease of appetite, hair loss, vaginal sores,
infertility, and fatigue (ACS For Women 32). Most of these effects, except
infertility, cease when the treatment is over.
There are many other possible treatments for breast cancer that are
currently under study. One of the biggest clinical trials involves hormone
therapy. This treatment uses medication to prevent the tumors from getting the
hormones, such as estrogen, that they need to thrive. Removal of the ovaries
and other hormone producing glands may also be prescribed. Another treatment
option being studied is bone marrow transplantation. The bone marrow can be
taken from healthy parts of the patient\'s own body or from other donors.
Although this treatment idea is still in its early stages, the results seem
promising.
Because there are so many varied treatment options, treatment decisions
are complex. These decisions are often affected by the judgment of the doctors
involved and the desires of the patient. A patient\'s treatment options depend
on a number of factors. These factors