How Breast Cancer Is Treated

Understanding the different options

Breast cancer treatments have improved greatly over time and you have more options than ever. Some breast cancer treatments—such as radiation and surgery, like lumpectomy—are local, aimed at the tumor(s) and removing them from your body. Others (chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and hormone therapy) are systemic, meaning their goal is to chase down and destroy stray cancer cells throughout your body.


Choosing one or a combination breast cancer treatments depends on several factors, including the type of breast cancer you have, its stage, your hormone receptor status, and more.


The earlier the stage of breast cancer, the more likely surgery is performed and may be curative. The extent of the spread of the breast cancer is what mainly dictates which of the following is performed.


Often referred to as breast-conserving surgery, lumpectomy involves removing the cancerous tumor and a surrounding margin of tissue. It's most common with early-stage breast cancer.

Due to the risk of leaving behind some cancerous cells, lumpectomy is typically followed by radiation.


A mastectomy involves removing the entire breast. If both breasts are removed, it's called a bilateral or double mastectomy. Sometimes, other tissues, such as the muscle that lies behind the breast, are removed as well.

Radiation is not as common following mastectomy as it is after lumpectomy.

Related Surgeries

The following procedures are also worth noting, as they may be done during a lumpectomy/mastectomy or afterward, depending on the procedure.

  • Sentinel lymph node biopsy: This surgical procedure is performed to see whether cancer has spread into the lymphatic system. It may be done during breast cancer surgery or on its own in advance.
  • Axillary lymph node dissection: The axillary nodes in your armpit are the first place to which breast cancer usually spreads. If a sentinel node biopsy finds cancer in the lymph nodes, the axillary nodes are most often removed as part of a mastectomy (though this can be performed separately).
  • Re-excision: An outpatient procedure, is only done if surgical margins aren't clear following a lumpectomy.
  • Breast reconstruction: This isn't technically a part of cancer treatment, but breast reconstruction is an important part of the treatment process and can be a big help with emotional recovery. Reconstruction is often done immediately after lumpectomy or mastectomy, but it may be performed later on, especially in cases where radiation therapy follows lumpectomy or mastectomy.
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Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, involves ionizing radiation to destroy cancer cells. It's used in very specific instances:

  • After a lumpectomy, to kill any remaining cancer cells and prevent a recurrence
  • After a mastectomy, when the tumor is larger than 5 centimeters or if cancer has spread to the axillary lymph nodes
  • In stage 4 breast cancer, when cancer has spread to other organs

Several radiation therapy techniques are in use, including whole-breast and partial-breast radiation. Each type has specific uses and indications.

Breast Cancer Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman

Drug Therapies

These options are often complements to a breast surgery, but may be done on their own in some cases.


Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment that involves the use of drugs to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing. Some chemo drugs are oral (pills that you take) while others are infusions (delivered into your veins). The specific drug(s) you'll get depend on the stage and characteristics of your tumor.

Not everyone with breast cancer will need chemotherapy. Your doctor may recommend chemotherapy:

  • For advanced breast cancer: If breast cancer has spread to other areas of the body, surgery is no longer an option. Chemotherapy, often in combination with targeted therapy, is typically the preferred treatment.
  • After surgery for some early-stage breast cancer: When there's a high risk of recurrence or metastasis, chemotherapy may help reduce the risk. This is called adjuvant therapy, which means that it follows the primary treatment.
  • Before surgery to shrink large tumors: This can help surgery be more successful, decrease the chance of recurrence, and sometimes allow for a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy. This is called neoadjuvant therapy, as it comes before the primary treatment.

Neoadjuvant therapy is often used for:

  • Inflammatory breast cancer
  • HER2-positive breast cancer
  • Triple-negative breast cancer
  • High-grade tumors
  • Large tumors
  • Cancers that have spread to the lymph nodes

A drawback of chemotherapy is that it targets any rapidly growing cells, which leads it to damage noncancerous cells. This is what causes many of the side effects linked to this form of treatment.

Targeted Therapies

Targeted therapies are a newer form of breast cancer treatment. They can be used alone or along with other therapies.

While chemotherapy targets all rapidly growing cells, targeted therapies do what their name suggests—directly target cancer cells or specific processes that contribute to the growth of cancer cells. That means target therapy often has fewer side effects than chemo.

Targeted therapies are available for people with:

  • Estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer
  • HER2-positive breast cancer
  • Triple-negative breast cancer
  • Women with the BRCA gene mutations

Hormone Therapy

Hormone therapy either blocks your body's ability to produce hormones or interferes with how hormones work. It's used to slow or stop the growth of hormone-sensitive tumors.

Typically, hormone therapy follows primary treatments and continues for five years. The specific drugs used depend on whether you're pre-menopausal or post-menopausal.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Therapies

While there are no over-the-counter treatments for breast cancer, your doctor may recommend some for help with side effects of treatment, such as Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen) for pain; drugs to help with nausea and vomiting or fatigue; and a gentle moisturizing lotion twice a day for dry, itchy skin.

No matter how common or harmless they may seem, be sure your doctor knows about any and all OTC medications and supplements you're taking. Some may interfere with your treatments or interact negatively with cancer medications.


Some lifestyle changes may help you deal with the side effects of your treatments.

For example, nausea and vomiting are common side effects of radiation and chemotherapy. Habits that can help you manage nausea include:

  • Eating small portions frequently
  • Eating slowly
  • Sticking to a bland diet that's low in fat
  • Relaxing after meals
  • Noting and avoiding foods that make you nauseous

Your doctor and nurses should be able to help you find ways to manage your side effects.

Lowering Risk of Recurrence

Lifestyle changes may have a positive impact on your risk of recurrence and overall health. Recommended changes include:

Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM)

As with home remedies, you should be careful with complementary or alternative treatments that aren't scientifically proven, especially if they're recommended as replacements for standard treatments that are proven to save lives.

However, some complementary approaches may be beneficial alongside cancer treatments, especially for helping you cope with symptoms, treatment side effects, and the emotional impact of it all.

Medical science is learning more about Eastern treatments such as acupuncture, yoga, and meditation, and treatment protocols that integrate these into cancer care are becoming more common.

The Internet is full of home remedies for diseases, and breast cancer is no exception. Remember that these treatments are unproven and may even be harmful. Be sure to talk to your doctor about anything you're considering and don't opt for unproven "treatments" as replacements for the proven ones your oncologist recommends.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is there a cure for breast cancer?

No, although some oncologists will use the terms "cured" or "cancer-free" for breast cancer that remains in remission for five years or more. This means there are no longer signs or symptoms of cancer, even though there may be undetectable cancer cells still in the body that could at some point proliferate again.

How is early-stage breast cancer treated?

Early-stage breast cancer is defined as cancer that has not spread beyond the breast or nearby lymph nodes, so treatment focuses on removing the tumor and destroying any cancer cells in the area. This typically involves breast-sparing surgery or a full mastectomy followed by radiation. Chemotherapy rarely is necessary.

How long will I need to have radiation for breast cancer?

The typical course of whole-breast radiation after a lumpectomy is five days a week for six to seven weeks. The same is true for radiation to the chest wall following a mastectomy. An alternative to the standard protocol is hypofractionated radiation therapy, in which larger doses are given for a shorter amount of time—three to four weeks.

What does it feel like to have radiation therapy for breast cancer?

Radiation itself is painless, but you may experience temporary side effects after a few weeks of treatment. The skin of the treated area may look and feel like a bad sunburn—red, rough, swollen, itchy, and sore. It may eventually peel. You also may feel very tired. These side effects will resolve after you finish your course of treatment.

How long will I need chemotherapy for breast cancer?

This will depend on your particular situation and the chemotherapy medications your oncologist prescribes. That said, typically chemotherapy for breast cancer is given for three to six months, with breaks of a few days or weeks between treatment sessions to allow the body to recover.

How will I feel after my first chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer?

You may feel very tired and nauseous after your first chemotherapy session or you may feel just fine. Chemotherapy side effects can vary depending on the medications used, and they're cumulative: You're likely to experience more side effects as your treatment progresses, which may include fatigue, nausea and vomiting, hair loss, soreness inside your mouth, anemia, and bruising.

A Word From Verywell

The treatment choices may seem overwhelming, but your doctor can help you figure out which ones are most appropriate for you. Having all those choices mean that your treatment regimen can be tailored specifically for you, and that increases your chance of a good outcome.

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Article Sources
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