How is breast cancer treated?

There are many different forms of breast cancer, each one requiring a different type of treatment or a number of treatments in combination. Your choice of treatment also depends on whether the cancer has spread beyond the breast, how far it has spread, and what stage the cancer is at.

Ductal Carcinoma in situ (DCIS)Invasive breast cancerInflammatory breast cancer

What is breast cancer?

Many people notice lumps or growths in their breasts at some point in their lifetime. When cells in the breast begin to divide rapidly they can cluster into hard lumps of tissue which are noticeably different from the rest of the breast tissue. Around 90% of breast lumps are benign (non-cancerous), and are usually cysts or collections of glandular tissues.

Although the majority of them are benign, if you discover a lump in the breasts you should have it checked out as soon as possible. It could be the first sign of breast cancer.

Besides a lump or growth, the main signs of breast cancerMammograph to look out for include:

  • Changes in the size or shape of the breast
  • Discharge from the nipple, usually containing blood
  • Lumps or swelling around the armpit area
  • Changes in the shape or size of the nipple
  • A dimpled appearance around the nipple
  • Itchy rash around the nipple
  • Dull ache or pain in the breast combined with inflammation

The symptoms could all be caused by other medical conditions, but they could also be an early sign of cancer. Early diagnosis is essential in the successful treatment of breast cancer. No matter how insignificant it may seem, if you notice any symptoms you should have a breast examination as soon as you can. If the lump is found to be benign you might choose to have it removed to avoid any worry about it turning cancerous.

While it is possible for men to develop breast cancer, the vast majority of cases are found in women.

The cancer tends to form in the ducts which transport milk to the nipple, but it can also appear in the milk glands themselves. The breasts are connected to the body’s lymphatic system, which carries fluid and toxins from the body and is made up of cell-like structures called nodes. Cancerous cells that form in the breast can enter into the lymphatic system and the lymph nodes surrounding the breast, which subsequently results in a high chance of the cancer being spread via the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

Breast auto-examOnce a lump has been discovered and you have been assessed by a doctor, you will most likely be sent for some tests to see whether the lump is cancerous. This could involve either a mammogram (x-ray of the breasts) or an ultrasound, or both. These tests can detect whether the lump is filled with fluid or is a solid lump of tissue.

If it is filled with fluid then the lump is most likely a cyst, which can be drained there and then by a nurse. On the other hand, if the lump is found to be solid then a biopsy is required to test for cancerous cells. A small sample of tissue is taken and sent for further analysis at laboratory, where a pathologist can see whether cancer cells are present.

What causes breast cancer?

There is no definitive cause of breast cancer, but there are a range of risk factors which increase the likelihood of it developing.

Genes and family history
Previous cancers
Hormone replacement therapy
Overall health

Life after breast cancer treatment

Many women who undergo a full mastectomy choose to have breast reconstruction surgery once their cancer treatment is completed. This replaces the removed tissue as well as the nipple and surrounding skin. While some women choose to have breast reconstruction for aesthetic reasons, others need reconstruction to restore the natural balance of the breasts. The feeling of having a natural pair of breasts again can also have an impact on your self-confidence and mental wellbeing after cancer treatment.

You will need to have regular checkups for a minimum of 5 years after breast cancer treatment, and ideally return for annual assessments for up to 10 years. It is important to closely monitor yourself for any changes in the breast for some time after treatment and should report anything suspicious to your care team straight away.

Mammograms are also conducted regularly after treatment for breast cancer. You should undergo a mammogram on an annual basis for at least 5 years after your initial treatment is completed.

Although modern treatments for breast cancer are highly-specialized and effective, as with any form of cancer there is always a chance it will return.

How much does breast cancer treatment cost?

It can be tough to find an accurate quote for breast cancer treatment. The final estimate is based the stage of the cancer, whether it has spread, and factors such as age, health, lifestyle, family history and any previous cancer. Consulting an experienced care team is the best way to get a good idea of how much your treatment will cost.

Breast cancer facts