In breast cancer, chemotherapy is used to treat the cancer and also to prevent it from returning once it has been treated. Women who have been diagnosed with stages II through IV breast cancer are most commonly given chemotherapy, however some women diagnosed with stage I breast cancer may benefit from chemotherapy treatment.
- Chemotherapy Side Effects
- Hair Loss and Chemotherapy: Can It Be Prevented?
- Combating Fatigue During Chemotherapy
Radiation Therapy. Radiation therapy uses certain types high energy beams of radiation to shrink tumors or eliminate cancer cells. Radiation therapy works by damaging a cancer cell's DNA, making it unable to multiply. Although radiation therapy can damage nearby healthy cells, cancer cells are highly sensitive to radiation and typically die when treated. Healthy cells that are damaged during radiation are resilient and are often able to fully recover.
There are two primary types of radiation therapy: external beam radiation therapy and internal beam radiation, also called brachytherapy. In breast cancer, external beam radiation is much more common than internal beam radiation.
- How Radiation is Used to Treat Breast Cancer
- Side Effects of Radiation Therapy
- How to Manage Skin Side Effects Caused by Radiation Therapy
Targeted Therapy. This type of therapy is less harmful to healthy cells than chemotherapy and targets properties of cancer cells that allow for rapid uncontrolled cell growth. This type of therapy is given in tablet form or in a chemotherapy infusion. Targeted therapy often accompanies chemotherapy in the breast cancer treatment plan. Drugs used for targeted therapy include:
Hormonal Therapy. In many cases of breast cancer, the cancer growth is fueled by the hormone estrogen that is produced by the ovaries. Hormonal therapy, also referred as anti-estrogen therapy, deprives estrogen of its ability to stimulate growth in breast cancer cells. Hormonal therapy is given to treat breast cancer and prevent recurrence.
The ovaries are the primary site of estrogen production, so hormonal treatment can include an oopherectomy, the surgical removal of the ovaries. Halting the ovary's production of estrogen through drugs may also be an option. Removal of the the ovaries and therapy to block estrogen production are recommended for pre-menopausal women with estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer or for women who have advanced breast cancer.
Aromatase inhibitors are another form of hormonal therapy used in post-menopausal women who have had estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer. It is given as a follow-up therapy to prevent recurrence.
Women's bodies produce an enzyme called aromatase that allows androgens to convert to a type of estrogen. Aromatase inhibitors suppress the this enzyme, lowering the levels of estrogen in the body. Types of aromatase inhibitor drugs include:
Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERM) are another form of hormonal treatment used in women with estrogen receptor positive breast cancer. SERMs work by preventing natural estrogen from sending signals to the estrogen receptor. In simplified terms, SERMs rush to the estrogen receptor and take the place where natural estrogen would like to occupy. Some like to compare it to musical chairs or two jigsaw puzzle pieces. There are three SERMs that are currently prescribed:
Breast Cancer Prevention
- doing self breast exams at home, beginning in their 20s
- having yearly clinical breast exam by a nurse or doctor in their 20s and 30s
- having a annual mammogram, beginning at age 40 (women at a higher risk may begin having mammograms earlier at the recommendation of their doctor)
Women who are classified as being at very high risk for breast cancer may choose more drastic, yet appropriate, means of reducing their risk. Prophylactic oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries) and/or prophylactic mastectomy may be a prevention method for women in this risk category. Although these methods can certainly reduce a woman's risk of developing breast cancer, it is by no means a guarantee.
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