Malignant Breast Cancer Treatments

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Hearing that you have a breast tumor can be scary, especially if you're unfamiliar with the terminology. A tumor is a mass of abnormal tissues. It does not automatically mean cancer. There are two main kinds of tumors: benign, which means the tumor is not cancerous; or malignant, meaning the tumor is cancerous. 

Read on to find out more about the specifics of tumors and breast tumors, and what treatments are available for breast cancer.

Doctors looking at a breast X-Ray
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Benign and Malignant Tumors

Benign tumors are not cancerous, and they often do not pose an immediate risk to your health. Sometimes healthcare providers will opt to leave a benign tumor alone instead of removing it. If you are experiencing discomfort, irritation, or pressure, talk with your practitioner, who may refer you to a surgeon to remove it and improve your symptoms.

If a tumor is found to be malignant, you have breast cancer or another form of cancer. Malignant tumors can be aggressive and may spread to other surrounding tissues. They require treatment.

When a lump is found, a biopsy (removing a sample of tissue to examine in a lab) may be done. This can help identify whether it is a tumor and whether it is benign or malignant.

Tumor Grades

Malignant tumors are evaluated and classified according to a designated system based on severity. Your healthcare provider will evaluate how similar the cells are to healthy cells and the shape and size of the cells. They will also look for indications of how quickly the cells split and multiply. With these factors in mind, the tumor is assigned a grade:

  • Grade 1: Well-differentiated
  • Grade 2: Moderately differentiated
  • Grade 3: Poorly differentiated

In this system, grade 1, well-differentiated tumors are the least severe and least aggressive. They most closely resemble normal tissue. At the other extreme, high-grade tumors that are poorly differentiated look abnormal under the microscope and will likely be more aggressive and severe.

These grades are completely different than cancer stages and should not be confused. Malignant breast cancer tumors at every grade are successfully treated all the time.

Treatment

Once a malignant tumor has been diagnosed in the breast, your healthcare provider will recommend a treatment plan tailored to your unique situation. This plan could include a variety of treatments, including:

  • Surgery: The healthcare provider will remove cancerous tissue from the affected area. How effective surgical procedures are is dependent on the type of cancer and its severity.
  • Hormone therapy: The drug tamoxifen is commonly used to block hormones from binding to cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy: High-energy rays are used to kill cancerous cells in a specific area. It is typically administered externally; however, there are internal methods of radiation as well.
  • Chemotherapy: This therapy includes the use of medications to kill cancerous cells. You may receive chemotherapy through an infusion directly into your bloodstream. The drugs travel through your body and attack the affected area.
  • Targeted therapy: Drugs that target specific proteins on breast cancer cells that help them grow are given to slow the spread of cancer and/or kill cancer cells. These can be given intravenously, under the skin, or orally as a pill. This is used when breast cancer is hormone receptor or HER2-positive, if you have a BRCA mutation, or in triple-negative breast cancer.
  • Immunotherapy: This therapy uses the body's own immune system to identify and kill cancer cells. Different proteins in the immune system are targeted to boost immune response. It can be used to help treat triple-negative breast cancer.

Summary

There are different types of treatment for breast cancer, depending on the stage and type of cancer you have. Your oncologist (cancer specialist) and treatment team will discuss your options with you to determine which course of treatment is best for you right now.

A Word From Verywell

A breast cancer diagnosis can be frightening, but there are treatments available. Talk with your oncologist about concerns you have and what you can expect at each stage of treatment. There is treatment, as well as support, for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does tumor grade affect treatment options?

    If the tumor grade is higher, this means the cancer is more likely to spread, so more aggressive treatment may be suggested. Tumor grade alone is not the sole factor in determining treatment options. This, along with the staging of your cancer, your age and overall health, and any other medical conditions you might have, all factor into treatment plans.

  • Is it possible to receive more than one type of cancer treatment?

    Yes. Depending on your cancer stage and type of cancer, you may have several types of cancer treatment, such as surgery followed by radiation therapy, or surgery followed by chemotherapy then radiation; or surgery followed by a combination of chemotherapy and immunology. Many people receive more than one type of cancer treatment.

  • How do you know if your cancer treatment is working?

    You won't know yourself if the cancer treatment is working, which is why it's important to see your treatment team regularly. They will do tests like blood work or imaging tests to monitor tumor markers or check for shrinkage or spread of the cancer.

  • Does insurance cover breast cancer treatment?

    No insurance plan fully covers breast cancer treatment. You will have to call your insurance company and make sure your hospital and doctors are in-network (within an approved list of providers) and find out what your co-pays may be, and any other potential out-of-pocket costs. There are often financial counselors and navigators at cancer centers and hospitals who can help you wade through the jargon and paperwork to provide a clear idea of what is covered, what may be covered, and what is not.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Cancer Society. Breast biopsy.

  2. Amin MB, Edge SB, Greene FL, et al., eds. AJCC Cancer Staging Manual. 8th ed. Springer; 2017.

  3. Trayes KP, Cokenakes SEH. Breast cancer treatment. Am Fam Physician. 2021;104(2):171-178.

  4. Breastcancer.org. Understanding the costs associated with cancer.

Additional Reading
Originally written by
Pam Stephan
Pam Stephan is a breast cancer survivor.
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