Breast cancer (female) - Treatment 

Treating breast cancer 

People with cancer should be cared for by a multidisciplinary team (MDT), a team of specialists who work together to provide the best treatment and care.

The team often consists of a specialist cancer surgeon, an oncologist (a radiotherapy and chemotherapy specialist), a radiologist, a pathologist, a radiographer, a reconstructive surgeon and a specialist nurse. Other members may include a physiotherapist, a dietitian and an occupational therapist, and you may have access to clinical psychology support.

What is good care for breast cancer?

When deciding what treatment is best for you, your doctors will consider:

  • the stage and grade of your cancer (how big it is and how far it has spread)
  • your general health
  • whether you have been through the menopause

You can discuss your treatment with your care team at any time and ask any questions.

The main treatments for breast cancer are:

You may have one of these treatments or a combination. The type of treatment or the combination of treatments will depend on how the cancer was diagnosed and the stage it is at. Breast cancer diagnosed at screening may be at an early stage, but breast cancer diagnosed when you have symptoms may be at a later stage and require a different treatment. Your healthcare team will discuss with you which treatments are most suitable.

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Treatment overview  hide

The first type of treatment for breast cancer is usually surgery. The type of surgery depends on the type of breast cancer you have. Surgery is usually followed by chemotherapy or radiotherapy or, in some cases, hormone or biological treatments. Again, the treatment you will have depends on your type of breast cancer. Your doctor will discuss the best treatment plan with you. Sometimes, chemotherapy or hormone therapy will be the first treatment.

Secondary breast cancer

Most breast cancers are discovered in the early stages of the disease. However, a small proportion of women discover that they have breast cancer after it has spread to other parts of the body (metastasis). If this is the case, the type of treatment you have may be different. Secondary cancer, also called advanced or metastatic cancer, is not curable and treatment aims to achieve a remission, where the cancer shrinks or disappears, making you feel normal and able to enjoy life to the full.

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Surgery  show

There are two types of surgery for breast cancer. These are surgery to remove just the cancerous lump (tumour), known as breast-conserving surgery, and surgery to remove the whole breast, which is called a mastectomy. In many cases, a mastectomy can be followed by reconstructive surgery to recreate the breast that was removed.

Studies have shown that breast-conserving surgery followed by radiotherapy is as successful as total mastectomy at treating early-stage breast cancer.

Breast-conserving surgery

Breast-conserving surgery ranges from a lumpectomy or wide local excision, in which just the tumour and a little surrounding breast tissue is removed, to a partial mastectomy or quadrantectomy, in which up to a quarter of the breast is removed.

If you have breast-conserving surgery, the amount of breast tissue you have removed will depend on:

  • the type of cancer you have 
  • the size of the tumour and where it is in your breast
  • the amount of surrounding tissue that needs to be removed
  • the size of your breasts

Your surgeon will always remove an area of healthy breast tissue around the cancer, which will be tested for traces of cancer. If there is no cancer present in the healthy tissue, there is less chance that the cancer will recur. If cancer cells are found in the surrounding tissue, you may need to have more tissue removed from your breast.

After breast-conserving surgery, you will usually be offered radiotherapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells.


A mastectomy is the removal of all the breast tissue, including the nipple. If there are no obvious signs that the cancer has spread to your lymph nodes, you may have a mastectomy, in which your breast is removed, along with a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB).

If the cancer has spread to your lymph nodes, you will probably need more extensive removal (clearance) of lymph nodes from the axilla (under your arm).


Breast reconstruction is surgery to make a new breast shape that looks as much as possible like your other breast. Reconstruction can be carried out at the same time as a mastectomy (immediate reconstruction) or it can be carried out later (delayed reconstruction). It can be done either by inserting a breast implant or by using tissue from another part of your body to create a new breast.

Lymph node surgery

To find out if the cancer has spread, a procedure called a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) may be carried out. The sentinel lymph nodes are the first lymph nodes that the cancer cells reach if they spread. They are part of the lymph nodes under the arm (axillary lymph nodes). The position of the sentinel lymph nodes varies, so they are identified using a combination of a radioisotope and a blue dye.

The sentinel lymph nodes are examined in the laboratory to see if there are any cancer cells present. This provides a good indicator of whether the cancer has spread.

If there are cancer cells in the sentinel nodes, you may need further surgery to remove more lymph nodes from under the arm.

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Radiotherapy  show

Radiotherapy uses controlled doses of radiation to kill cancer cells. It is generally given after surgery and chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells.

If you need radiotherapy, your treatment will begin about a month after your surgery or chemotherapy to give your body a chance to recover. You will probably have radiotherapy sessions three to five days a week, for three to six weeks. Each session will only last a few minutes.

The type of radiotherapy you have depends on the type of cancer and the type of surgery you have. Some women may not need to have radiotherapy at all. The types available are: 

  • breast radiotherapy. After breast-conserving surgery, radiation is applied to the whole of the remaining breast tissue
  • chest wall radiotherapy. After a mastectomy, radiotherapy is applied to the chest wall
  • breast boost. Some women may be offered a boost of high-dose radiotherapy in the area where the cancer was removed. However, the boost may affect the appearance of the breast, especially if you have larger breasts, and can sometimes have other side effects, including hardening of the breast tissue (fibrosis)
  • radiotherapy to the lymph nodes. Radiotherapy is aimed at the armpit (axilla) and the surrounding area to kill any cancer that may be present in the lymph nodes

The side effects of radiotherapy include:

  • irritation and darkening of the skin on your breast, which may lead to sore, red, weepy skin
  • fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • lymphoedema (excess fluid build-up in your arm caused by blockage of the lymph nodes under your arm)

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Chemotherapy  show

Chemotherapy involves using anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to kill the cancer cells. Chemotherapy is usually used after surgery to destroy any cancer cells that have not been removed. This is called adjuvant chemotherapy. In some cases, you may have chemotherapy before surgery, which is generally used to shrink a large tumour. This is called neo-adjuvant chemotherapy.

Several different drugs are used for chemotherapy and often three are given at once. The choice of drugs and the combination depends on the type of breast cancer and how much it has spread.

Chemotherapy is usually given as an outpatient treatment, which means you will not have to stay in hospital overnight. The drugs are usually given through a drip straight into the blood through a vein. In some cases, you may be given tablets that you can take at home. You may receive chemotherapy sessions once every two to three weeks, over a period of four to eight months, to give your body a rest in between treatments.

The main side effects of chemotherapy are caused by their influence on normal, healthy cells, such as immune cells. Side effects include:

  • infections
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
  • tiredness
  • hair loss
  • sore mouth

Many side effects can be prevented or controlled with medicines that your doctor can prescribe.

Chemotherapy drugs can also stop the production of oestrogen in your body. Oestrogen is known to encourage the growth of some breast cancers. If you have not been through the menopause, your periods may stop while you are undergoing chemotherapy treatment. After you have finished the course of chemotherapy, your ovaries should start producing oestrogen again. However, in some cases this does not happen and you will enter an early menopause. This is more likely in women over the age of 40, as they are closer to menopausal age. Your doctor will discuss with you the impact that any treatment will have on your fertility.

Chemotherapy for secondary breast cancer

If your breast cancer has spread beyond the breast and lymph nodes to other parts of the body, chemotherapy will not cure the cancer but it may shrink the tumour, relieve your symptoms and help lengthen your life.

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Hormone treatment  show

Some breast cancers are stimulated to grow by the hormones oestrogen or progesterone, which are found naturally in your body. These types of cancer are known as hormone-receptor-positive cancers. Hormone therapy works by lowering the levels of hormones in your body or by stopping their effects.

The type of hormone therapy you have will depend on the stage and grade of your cancer, which hormone it is sensitive to, your age, whether you have been through the menopause and what other type of treatment you are having. You will probably have hormone therapy after surgery and chemotherapy, but it is sometimes given before surgery to shrink a tumour, making it easier to remove.

Hormone therapy may be used as the only treatment for breast cancer if your general health prevents you from having surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

In most cases, you will need to take hormone therapy for up to five years after your surgery.

If your breast cancer is not sensitive to hormones, hormone therapy will have no effect.


Tamoxifen stops oestrogen from binding to oestrogen-receptor-positive cancer cells. Tamoxifen is taken every day as a tablet or liquid. It can cause several side effects, including:

  • tiredness
  • changes to your periods
  • nausea and vomiting
  • hot flushes
  • aching joints
  • headaches
  • weight gain

Aromatase inhibitors

If you have been through the menopause, you may be offered an aromatase inhibitor. This drug works by blocking aromatase, a substance that helps to make oestrogen in the body after the menopause. Before the menopause, oestrogen is made by the ovaries.

Three aromatase inhibitors may be offered. These are anastrozole, exemestane and letrozole. These are taken as a tablet once a day. Side effects include:

  • hot flushes and sweats
  • loss of interest in sex
  • nausea and vomiting
  • tiredness
  • aching joints and bone pain
  • headaches
  • skin rashes

Ovarian ablation or suppression

In women who have not been through the menopause, oestrogen is produced by the ovaries. Ovarian ablation or suppression stops the ovaries from working and from producing oestrogen.

Ablation can be carried out using surgery or radiotherapy. This stops the ovaries working permanently and means that you will go through the menopause early.

Ovarian suppression involves using a drug called goserelin, which is a luteinising hormone-releasing hormone agonist (LHRHa). Your periods will stop while you are taking it, although they should start again once your treatment is complete. If you are approaching the menopause (around the age of 50), your periods may not start again once you stop taking goserelin.

Goserelin is taken as an injection once a month and can cause menopausal side effects, including:

  • hot flushes and sweats
  • mood swings
  • trouble sleeping

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Biological therapy (targeted therapy) show

Some breast cancers are stimulated to grow by a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2). These cancers are called HER2-positive. Biological therapy works by stopping the effects of HER2 and by helping your immune system to fight off cancer cells.

If you have high levels of the HER2 protein and are able to have biological therapy, you will probably be prescribed a medicine called trastuzumab. Trastuzumab, also known by the brand name Herceptin, is usually used after chemotherapy.


Trastuzumab is a type of biological therapy known as a monoclonal antibody. Antibodies occur naturally in your body and are made by your immune system to destroy harmful cells, such as viruses and bacteria. The trastuzumab antibody targets and destroys cancer cells that are HER2-positive.

Trastuzumab is given intravenously, through a drip, and you will have the treatment in hospital. Each treatment session takes up to one hour and the number of sessions you need will depend on whether you have early or more advanced breast cancer. On average, you will need a session once every three weeks for early breast cancer and weekly sessions if your cancer is more advanced.

Trastuzumab can cause side effects, including heart problems. This means that it is not suitable if you have a heart problem, such as angina, uncontrolled high blood pressure (hypertension) or heart valve disease. If you need to take trastuzumab, you will need regular tests on your heart to make sure it is not causing any problems. Other side effects of trastuzumab may include:

  • an initial allergic reaction to the drug, which can cause nausea, wheezing, chills and fever
  • diarrhoea
  • tiredness
  • aches and pains

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Clinical trials  show

A great deal of progress has been made in breast cancer treatment and more women now live longer and have fewer side effects of treatment. These advances were discovered in clinical trials, where new treatments and treatment combinations are compared with standard ones.

All cancer trials in the UK are carefully overseen to ensure the trial is worthwhile and safely conducted. In fact, participants in clinical trials can do better overall than those in routine care.

If you are asked to take part in a trial, you will be given an information sheet and, if you want to take part, you will be asked to sign a consent form. You can refuse or withdraw from a clinical trial without it affecting your care.

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Psychological help show

Dealing with cancer can be a huge challenge, for both patients and their families. It can bring emotional and practical difficulties. Many women have to cope with the removal of part or all of a breast, which can be very upsetting.

It often helps to talk about your feelings or other difficulties with a trained counsellor or therapist. You can ask for this kind of help at any stage of your illness. There are various ways to find help and support:

  • Your hospital doctor, specialist nurse or GP can refer you to a counsellor. If you are feeling depressed, talk to your GP. A course of antidepressant drugs may help or your GP can arrange for you to see a counsellor or psychotherapist.
  • It can help to talk to someone who has been through the same thing as you. Many organisations have helplines and online forums. They can also put you in touch with other people who have had cancer treatment.

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Complementary therapies show

Complementary therapies are holistic therapies that can promote physical and emotional wellbeing. They are given alongside conventional treatments and include relaxation techniques, massage, aromatherapy and acupuncture.

Complementary therapy can help some women cope with diagnosis and treatment and provide a break from the treatment plan.

Your hospital or breast unit may be able to provide access to complementary therapies or suggest where you can get them. It is important to speak to your breast cancer specialist nurse about any complementary therapy you wish to use to make sure it does not interfere with your conventional treatment.

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Page last reviewed: 09/07/2012

Next review due: 09/07/2014


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The 1 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

wilsparky said on 01 July 2014

Above we are told, ''Secondary cancer, also called advanced or metastatic cancer, is not curable and treatment aims to achieve a remission, where the cancer shrinks or disappears, making you feel normal and able to enjoy life to the full.''

I find this self contradictory. Surely if a cancer ''disappears'' - the disease is gone?
And if the disease is gone, surely the patient is cured?
So why are we told secondary cancer cannot be cured yet ''remission'' (which may include disappearance of cancer) might be achieved?

This is just bad communication.

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