What are the different breast cancer medications and treatments?
By Nancy Kupka, PhD, RN Nov 19, 2022 • 4 min
If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with breast cancer, it is imperative to work with a healthcare team knowledgeable about the latest treatments available. The team should also work to make sure you’re involved in informed decision-making, answering all questions and doing all that can be done to optimize treatment.
Options for breast cancer treatment
There are many breast cancer treatment options, including surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and other medications:
Surgery and radiation
Most people with breast cancer may have some type of surgery to remove the tumor. Both surgery and radiation for breast cancer are localized treatments, aimed at very specific areas of the body. You may receive radiation before, after or instead of surgery to help shrink the tumor. The two types of radiation therapy are external radiation and internal radiation. External radiation involves a machine outside of the body aiming radiation at a targeted area with the cancer, whereas internal radiation involves using a needle, wire or catheter to insert a radioactive substance directly into or near the cancer.
Hormone therapies and other breast cancer drugs are systemic, meaning they can reach cells anywhere in the body. Hormone therapy is often used, as approximately 2 out of 3 breast cancers are hormone receptor-positive. This means the cancer cells have receptors for estrogen and/or progesterone, which are used by the cancer cells to grow and spread. Since hormone therapy can block estrogen, it can help stop the breast cancer cells from growing. Hormone therapy can be used before or after surgery and can reduce the chances of the cancer coming back. It can also treat the cancer once it has recurred or spread.
Biological therapies help the body’s immune system fight off cancer cells. They can also control side effects of other treatments, such as lowered white or red blood cell counts.
Chemotherapy refers to medicines taken by mouth or through the veins to shrink or kill cancer cells. It may be given before surgery to shrink the tumor and reduce the amount of tissue that needs to be removed. After all the cancer that can be seen is removed during surgery, you may also receive chemotherapy to kill any cancer cells that remain. This lowers the risk of the cancer coming back.
Cures for breast cancer
Many factors impact the chances of recovering from breast cancer. These include:
- Your general health, age and if you have gone through menopause
- The type of breast cancer you have, how quickly it is growing, and the breast cancer stage, including if it has spread to your lymph nodes or other parts of the body
- Specific proteins and hormone receptor levels in the tumor tissue
- If it’s an initial tumor or a cancer that has come back, and the overall chances of it coming back again
Treating breast cancer is complex, and most people are treated with multiple therapies. It is important to work with a team you trust who is knowledgeable about advances in care. And remember, it never hurts to get a second opinion or talk to your healthcare team to see if you qualify for a clinical trial where new therapies are tested. Advances in cancer care are happening all the time.
Published January 2020. Clinically reviewed and updated by Rebeca Thomas, RN, BSN, CPHQ, November 2022.