The Who, What, Where, When and Sometimes, Why.

Types of Treatment

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The goal of treating early breast cancer is to get rid of the cancer and keep it from coming back.

Together, you and your health care provider make breast cancer treatment decisions.

After you get a recommended treatment plan from your provider, take time to study your treatment options. Talk to those closest to you. Consider getting a second opinion.

Make thoughtful, informed decisions that are best for you. Each treatment option has risks and benefits to consider along with your own values and lifestyle.

Breast cancer treatment can be divided into local therapy and systemic therapy.

Local therapy

Local therapy removes the cancer from a limited (local) area, such as the breast, chest wall and lymph nodes in the underarm area. It also helps ensure the cancer doesn’t come back to that area.

Local therapy involves surgery, with or without radiation therapy to the breast and nearby lymph nodes.

The goal of breast cancer surgery is to remove the entire tumor from the breast.

Some of the lymph nodes from the underarm area (axillary nodes) may also be removed to see if they contain cancer cells.

Types of breast cancer surgery

There are 2 basic types of breast cancer surgery:

  • Lumpectomy (also called breast-conserving surgery, partial mastectomy or wide excision). The tumor and a small rim of normal tissue around the tumor are removed. The rest of the breast remains intact.
  • Mastectomy. The entire breast is removed.

Learn about deciding between lumpectomy and mastectomy.

Learn about breast reconstruction.  

The goal of radiation therapy is to kill any cancer cells that might be left in or around the breast after surgery. These cells are too small to see on scans or to be measured with lab tests.

Learn about going through radiation therapy.

Learn about the side effects of radiation therapy.

Learn about emerging areas in radiation therapy.  


Systemic therapy (adjuvant therapy)

The goal of systemic therapy is to get rid of cancer cells that may have spread from the breast to other parts of the body. These cells are too small to be seen on scans or to be measured with lab tests. 

Systemic therapy uses drug therapies that travel throughout the body to get rid of cancer cells. It includes chemotherapy, hormone therapy and HER2-targeted therapy.

Some drug therapies are given by vein (through an IV) and some are pills.

Because systemic therapy is used in addition to (an adjunct to) breast surgery, these treatments are often called adjuvant therapy.

Chemotherapy drugs kill or disable cancer cells.

For people with early breast cancer, chemotherapy is usually given after breast surgery, but before radiation therapy.

Neoadjuvant (before surgery) chemotherapy

In people with large tumors who need a mastectomy, chemotherapy may be used before surgery. This is called neoadjuvant chemotherapy. Neoadjuvant chemotherapy may shrink the tumor enough so a lumpectomy becomes an option.

Neoadjuvant chemotherapy may also be given to people who have enlarged lymph nodes in the underarm area (due to breast cancer). Neoadjuvant chemotherapy may shrink the tumors in the lymph nodes and make it easier to remove these nodes during surgery.

People with locally-advanced or inflammatory breast cancer usually begin treatment with neoadjuvant chemotherapy.

Learn about chemotherapy drugs.

Learn about going through chemotherapy.

Learn about the short-term side effects of chemotherapy.

Learn about the long-term side effects of chemotherapy.

Learn about emerging areas in chemotherapy.  

Some breast cancer cells need estrogen and/or progesterone (hormones in the body) to grow. Hormone therapy slows or stops the growth of these tumors by preventing the cancer cells from getting the hormones they need to grow.

Hormone therapy is usually given after surgery.

In some postmenopausal women, hormone therapy may be used before surgery to try and shrink a tumor enough so a lumpectomy becomes an option to a mastectomy. This is called neoadjuvant hormone therapy.

Learn more about hormone therapies, including tamoxifenaromatase inhibitors and ovarian suppression.

Learn about the side effects of tamoxifen.

Learn about the side effects of aromatase inhibitors.

Learn about the side effects of ovarian suppression.

Learn about emerging areas in hormone therapy.

Some breast cancers have high amounts of a protein called HER2 on the surface of the cancer cells (called HER2-positive breast cancer). The HER2 protein is an important part of the pathway for cell growth and survival.

HER2-targeted therapies are used to treat HER2-positive breast cancers. Unlike chemotherapy, HER2-targeted therapies only kill HER2-positive cancer cells with little harm to healthy cells.

Learn about the side effects of HER2-targeted therapies for early breast cancer.

Learn about emerging areas in HER2-targeted therapies.

Learn about factors that affect treatment options.

Learn more about side effects of breast cancer treatments.

Learn about financial issues related to treatment.

Learn more about the importance of following your breast cancer treatment plan

Updated 05/18/21