Treating Breast Cancer: Advancements Offer Hope

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By: George Hahm, M.D., FACS, General  Surgeon

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This is the second article in a three-part series written to help women understand more about this disease; the first article focused on early detection of breast cancer.

Much progress has been made in treating breast cancer, especially in the past 20 years. Therapies have been refined based on their effectiveness, while research continues.

When breast cancer is diagnosed, the treatment recommended depends on the type of cancer (where in the breast the cells initially formed) and the stage (how long the cells have been growing and whether they have spread to other parts of the body).

Standard Treatments

Surgery – removes the breast tumor. During surgery, if it is not known whether the cancer has spread, the lymph node that first receives lymphatic drainage from the breast will be removed and examined for cancer cells. This tells the surgeon if additional lymph nodes need to be removed.

The surgeon will perform one of two procedures:

  1. Breast conservation therapy: Lumpectomy with radiation therapy
  • Lumpectomy/Partial mastectomy – removes the tumor (lump) and a small amount of healthy tissue surrounding the tumor.
  • Radiation Therapy – uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cells or keep them from growing. Radiation may be external—using a machine to send radiation toward the cancer, or internal—using radioactive substances sealed in seeds, wires, needles or catheters and placed directly into or near the cancer.
  1. Mastectomy
  • Mastectomy – removes the entire breast. Additional tissue may be removed depending on the spread of cancer.  In cases where providers are available, patients are able to have breast reconstruction performed simultaneously, using the patient’s own tissue or a gel or silicone implant.

Chemotherapy – utilized once cancer has spread beyond the breast.  It stops the growth of cancer cells, either by killing them or by preventing them from dividing. Chemotherapy may be given intravenously, injected into a muscle, or taken by mouth so that the drugs will enter the bloodstream and reach cancer cells throughout the body.  Or, chemotherapy can be placed in specific areas so that the drugs will only affect cells in those regions. A medical oncologist will fully explain this treatment option if necessary.

Hormone Therapy:  Made by glands in the body, hormones are substances that circulate in the bloodstream, and they can cause certain cancers to grow. Goal of hormonal therapy is to remove the hormones or block their action.

Chemotherapy and hormone therapy may be used either before surgery to shrink a tumor (to allow for a less-invasive surgical procedure) or after surgery to attack any stray cancer cells in the body.

Targeted Therapy:  This treatment uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack certain parts of cancer cells to keep them from growing or spreading, without harming normal cells.  It is sometimes used in conjunction with chemotherapy to improve its effectiveness.

Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are studies of new treatments to determine their effectiveness, safety, and whether they are better than standard treatments. Patients who volunteer to participate may benefit from access to new therapies not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and their involvement aids the research process.

According to the American Cancer Society, the breast cancer death rate has been declining since 1989. Thanks to improvements in prevention, early detection and treatment, there are now 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S.

About the Author:  George Hahm, M.D. is a board certified General Surgeon and a member of the medical staff at Mesa View Regional Hospital. Dr. Hahm is also a Fellow with the American College of Surgery.  Dr. Hahm is now seeing new patients at Mesa View Medical Group, 1301 Bertha Howe Avenue Suite #8.  He can be reached at 702-346-1700 or visit www.MesaViewMedical.com

Disclaimer: Remember that this information is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor, but rather to increase awareness and help equip patients with information and facilitate conversations with your physician that will benefit your health.

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