Types of treatment for breast cancer | Cancer Research UK
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Types of treatment for breast cancer

The main treatments for breast cancer are surgery, radiotherapy, hormone therapy, chemotherapy and biological treatments. You may have a combination of some of these treatments, depending on your situation. Your doctor will take many different factors into account when deciding which treatment you need. Some of the factors they consider are

  • The type of breast cancer you have
  • The size of your breast tumour
  • The stage of the cancer
  • The grade of your cancer cells
  • Whether you have had your menopause
  • Whether your cancer cells have receptors for particular cancer drugs
  • Your general health

Stage and grade

The stage of your breast cancer means how big it is and whether it has spread. Grade means what the cancer cells look like under the microscope. Breast cancers can be low grade (grade 1, slow growing), intermediate grade (grade 2), or high grade (grade 3, faster growing).


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The main treatments

The treatments used for breast cancer include

You may have a combination of these treatments, depending on your situation. It is impossible to generalise about breast cancer treatment because there are so many different sets of circumstances. Your doctor will take many different factors into account when deciding which treatment is best for you. Some of the factors they consider are

  • The type of breast cancer you have
  • The size of your breast tumour
  • The stage of your breast cancer
  • The grade of your cancer cells
  • Whether you have had your menopause
  • Whether your cancer cells have receptors for particular cancer drugs
  • Your general health

If you feel strongly about having or not having a particular treatment, do tell your doctor. There may be other options for you. And if you would prefer a particular type of treatment, but your specialist hasn't suggested it, you can ask them why. Your specialist can explain the reasons to you.

Specialised computer programmes can help doctors decide which treatment may be best in your particular case. The programmes contain all the details of trial results for treatments after surgery for early stage breast cancer. Doctors can type in the details of your cancer and then add in different types of treatment, such as chemotherapy or hormonal therapy. The computer tells your doctor how much each treatment reduces the chance of the cancer coming back. The computer programmes also give information about the risk of side effects. One commonly used programme is called Adjuvant! Online and another is called Predict.

Discover your options for breast cancer treatment.

breast cancer treatment options flowchart


Your treatment team

NHS guidelines emphasise that all breast cancer patients should be under the care of a multi disciplinary team. This is a team of health professionals who meet regularly and work together to decide on the best way treatment and care for each patient. The MDT includes

  • Specialist breast cancer surgeons
  • Doctors who specialise in radiotherapy and cancer drug treatment
  • A breast cancer specialist nurse
  • Doctors who are expert in X-rays and scans
  • A pathologist
  • A counsellor or psychologist

Stage and grade of your cancer

The tests used to diagnose your cancer give information about its stage and grade. Knowing the stage and grade is important for helping the doctors decide which treatments you need. The stage of your breast cancer means how big it is and whether it has spread. Grade means what the cancer cells look like under the microscope. 

Breast cancers can be

  • Low grade – grade 1 (slow growing)
  • Intermediate grade – grade 2
  • High grade – grade 3 (faster growing)

Low grade cancers tend to grow more slowly than high grade. High grade cancers are more likely to come back after they have first been treated. But the grade can only give a guide to how any individual cancer will behave and individual cancers may behave differently.


Tests for receptors on cancer cells

Your specialist in the breast clinic or your breast surgeon will send your breast cancer cells for tests to see if they have hormone receptors or biological therapy receptors. They call this receptor status. 

Oestrogen is a female sex hormone. It stimulates some breast cancers to grow by triggering particular proteins (receptors) in the cancer cells. If your breast cancer cells have oestrogen receptors, the cancer is said to be ER positive. About two thirds of women with breast cancer have hormone positive cancers. Hormone therapies that can stop oestrogen from stimulating the cells to divide and grow work well for ER positive breast cancers. Your doctor may recommend hormone therapy to shrink a tumour before surgery. More often they will recommend hormone therapy after surgery, to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back.

Testing for particular proteins can help to show whether biological therapies may work as a treatment for your breast cancer. For example, the drug trastuzumab (Herceptin) is only likely to work if your breast cancer cells have a lot of Her2 protein. You may see this written as HER2neu or erbB2. Her2 protein is on the cell surface of up to 1 in 4 early breast cancers. Herceptin attaches to the Her2 protein. If your breast cancer cells don't have this protein, Herceptin won't work.


Surgery and radiotherapy

Most people begin their breast cancer treatment with surgery. There are different types of surgery for breast cancer. Your doctor may offer you a choice about your treatment. Depending on the size and position of the tumour, you may be able to have just the cancerous lump removed with a border of normal breast tissue (a wide local excision or lumpectomy) plus several weeks of radiotherapy to the rest of the breast. Or you may prefer to have the whole breast removed (mastectomy) and perhaps have a breast reconstruction. To help you decide, you may want to consider

  • How you feel about having the whole breast removed
  • How you feel about having only part of the breast removed
  • How you feel about having radiotherapy
  • How quickly you want the treatment to be finished
  • How you would cope with travelling to hospital daily for radiotherapy
  • Whether you want to have a breast reconstruction straight away or some months after surgery

There are no right and wrong answers to most treatment decisions. Women each feel very differently. Some women want to keep their breast if at all possible, so they choose a lumpectomy (wide local excision) and radiotherapy. Other women feel that once they have breast cancer they would rather have the whole breast removed and they may then have a new breast made.

Some women feel strongly that they don't want radiotherapy. Others welcome it if it means keeping their breast. The most important thing is to take time to find out how you feel and make the right decision for you.

For some women the position of the cancer within the breast or its size may mean that they don't have a choice of treatment. If the cancer is quite big, or right in the centre of the breast, the only option may be to remove the whole breast. But reconstruction is usually possible. The type and timing of reconstruction may depend on the need for further treatment such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

Remember that you don't have to make a decision about treatment straight away. You can say to your specialist that you need some time to think over your options. You can then discuss the issues with family or friends, or reflect on your own about how you feel. Before making a decision you can also ask your specialist or breast cancer nurse more questions about the different treatments if you need to.

There is detailed information about these treatments in the sections about surgery for breast cancer and radiotherapy for breast cancer.


Breast reconstruction

Breast reconstruction is an operation to make a new breast shape after having a breast removed. Or it can be an operation to fill in an area where a large lump was removed from the breast. 

If you have a mastectomy, you can usually choose whether you would like breast reconstruction at the time of the mastectomy or during a later operation (delayed reconstruction). Sometimes there are medical reasons that make it difficult to do a breast reconstruction. There is detailed information about breast reconstruction in the surgery for breast cancer section.


Chemotherapy and hormone therapy

You may have chemotherapy or hormone therapy before or after your surgery and radiotherapy.

Treatment before surgery

Cancer treatment before surgery is called neo adjuvant treatment. You may have chemotherapy or hormone therapy before surgery for large tumours or locally advanced breast cancer to try to make the cancer smaller and easier to remove. Chemotherapy or hormone therapy can often help to shrink the cancer in the breast. Hormone therapy is only used if you have oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer. It will usually be obvious how well the treatment is going to work within 6 to 12 weeks of starting it.

Treatment after surgery

Chemotherapy or hormone therapy after surgery is called adjuvant treatment. It helps to lower the chance of the cancer coming back. The type of treatment you have depends on

  • Whether you have had your menopause
  • Tests on your cancer cells that help to show whether hormone therapy or chemotherapy will work for you
  • The grade of your cancer cells
  • The size of the cancer in the breast and whether it has spread to your lymph nodes

Current national guidelines for early breast cancer treatment recommend that you should have hormone therapy after surgery if your breast cancer has oestrogen receptors (ER positive). Younger women who are ER positive may have chemotherapy as well as hormone therapy. 

Women who have a small cancer with a low risk of it coming back might not need to have chemotherapy. It depends on how much the chemotherapy is likely to help and the person's general health.

Tamoxifen impact statement


Switching off the ovaries

Women who haven't had their menopause before being diagnosed with breast cancer are still producing oestrogen. Oestrogen can stimulate some breast cancer cells to grow. So some treatments aim to stop the ovaries making oestrogen. 

For some women, chemotherapy treatment will cause a menopause and tamoxifen hormone therapy can lower oestrogen levels. But there are other ways of stopping the ovaries working. This is called ovarian ablation. Ovarian ablation can cause quite intense menopausal symptoms because the oestrogen levels in the body drop very quickly. 

To stop your ovaries working, you may have

Surgery to remove your ovaries

Surgery stops the ovaries working permanently and lowers oestrogen levels in the body. 

Radiotherapy to the ovaries

Radiotherapy treatment to the ovaries stops them producing oestrogen. This treatment is very rarely used.

Drug treatment with luteinising hormone blockers

If you don't want your ovaries to stop working permanently your doctor may offer you drugs called luteinising hormone blockers for 2 to 3 years. These drugs stop the ovaries producing oestrogen. When you stop having the drug, your ovaries should start to work again. But the nearer you are to the age at which you would naturally have the menopause, the more likely it is that these drugs will switch off your ovaries permanently. 

There is detailed information about luteinising hormone blockers in the hormone therapy for breast cancer section. In most women, periods come back 6 to 12 months after finishing treatment and they will become fertile (able to have children) again. And any menopausal symptoms usually stop soon after the treatment ends.


Biological therapy for breast cancer

Biological therapy treats cancer using substances that change cell processes. Trastuzumab (Herceptin) is a type of biological therapy for breast cancer. It only works for women who have receptors for Her2 protein on their cancer cells (known as Her2 positive cancer).

If you have early Her2 positive breast cancer, Herceptin may help to stop it from coming back. If you have advanced breast cancer, it may help to keep it under control for longer. For breast cancer that has spread, other biological therapies such as lapatinib (Tyverb) or sunitinib (Sutent) can also control or slow the cancer growth. 

There is detailed information about biological therapies for breast cancer in this section. There is also information about biological therapy for advanced breast cancer.


Predicting how well treatment may work

There are a number of tools available to help doctors decide which treatment you should have. These tools give them some idea of how well treatment may work for a person with breast cancer and how long the person may live. It is not possible to predict exactly what will happen to each individual person but these tools can give a general idea.

The Nottingham Prognostic Indicator (NPI) looks at 3 factors

  • The size of the cancer
  • Whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes (lymph glands) under the arm (and if so, how many nodes are affected)
  • The  grade of the cancer

Your doctor then scores each of these factors and depending on the total they work out whether your outlook is excellent, good, moderate or poor.

The NPI is based on information from a group of patients treated some time ago and very few of them had treatment after surgery. Treatment results have greatly improved since then. So it may not give as good an outlook (prognosis) as you actually have, if you are having treatment now.

More recently other tools have become available including Adjuvant! Online and PREDICT.

The Adjuvant! Online tool looks at the same factors as the NPI but also includes other details such as the hormone receptors on your cancer cells . Your doctor puts all of the information about your cancer into a computer programme. This gives them an idea of how well each treatment may work for you, and the difference having treatment after surgery may make.

The PREDICT tool looks at all of the information that the NPI considers. It also takes into account other factors. These include whether there are hormone and HER2 receptors on your cancer cells and whether you have other health conditions.

Each of these tools has advantages and drawbacks. Your doctors will choose the tool that they think is most suitable for you.

Even with these tools, it is extremely difficult for a doctor to predict a person’s outcome. There are now many more tests available that tell your doctor more about your cancer. So there are many more factors involved than any one tool covers. It is best to discuss your particular situation with your own doctor because they have all the information about your case available to them.


If you can't have surgery

Some women have health problems that mean they can't have surgery. Some women choose not to have surgery. In this situation, your doctor may recommend treatment with hormone therapy such as tamoxifen, anastrozole (Arimidex) or letrozole (Femara), if your cancer is oestrogen receptor positive. Doctors call this primary endocrine therapy and it is most often used for women over 70 who have health problems. The treatment will not get rid of the breast cancer but can control it for some time.


Taking notes

When you are first diagnosed, cancer treatment can sometimes seem very complicated. As you can see there are quite a few different ways of treating breast cancer. And it can seem even more confusing if other people you meet are having different treatments. It is important to remember that other people will have different circumstances to you. They may

Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor or nurse if something is puzzling you. It can help to take notes when you talk to people about your treatment. Or you can ask to record the conversation so that you don't forget what your doctor or specialist nurse says. If you still don't understand, do ask again. No one will think it strange that you want to ask a lot of questions about your treatment.


Second opinions

If you don't feel that you are getting the treatment you want or need, you can ask for a second opinion. This means going to see another specialist and asking them what treatment they think you should have. They will need to see all your test results and X-rays. 

Having a second opinion doesn't usually mean that the new doctor takes over your treatment and care. They discuss with you and your current doctor which is the best treatment approach to take. Most doctors are quite happy to arrange this for you. It takes time to arrange a second opinion and may mean that your treatment is delayed for a while.

It is worth discussing your current specialists' approach with them first. Once you have heard why they are suggesting particular treatments for you, you may feel that you don't need a second opinion. It is always a good idea to jot down a few questions before you go to the hospital for an appointment with your specialist. It can be difficult to remember everything you want to ask once you get there. Your doctor won’t think this strange. These days many patients write their questions down.

There is detailed information in this section about

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Updated: 30 July 2014