Although surgery is the most effective (and hence, the most widely used) breast cancer treatment method, there are several other ways of dealing with the disease, some are more powerful than the others. These include radiation therapy, chemotherapy or hormonal therapy, each of them with their own assets and downsides.
Most of them however are used in combination with surgery for best effects, either prior to it, in order to reduce the size of the tumor or after the operation, in order to remove any remaining cancerous cells. For a better understanding of these alternative treatment methods for breast cancer, we’ll take a closer look at each, explaining how they work and in what cases they might prove useful.
Radiation therapy uses powerful gamma rays (x-rays) which target the specific area that needs to be treated with high precision. Usually, radiation therapy is performed after surgery, to destroy any cancer cells that have not been removed or the ones that formed up where the tumor was removed. Although it can’t be used as, a treatment on its own, radiation therapy is one of the most accepted post-surgery methods of breast conserving therapy (BCT) and has a high chance of stopping the cancer from recurring. As with all treatments involving x-rays, there are some downsides to radiation therapy. First, in order to wipe out the cancerous cells that might have formed (or remained) in the area where the tumor was removed from, the x-rays will eventually damage some of the healthy tissue too. Although the process is highly precise, the rays cannot make a difference between cancerous and normal cells, so they “burn” them together.
Chemotherapy involves the administration of drugs that kill the cancer cells or stop them from growing. Most chemotherapy medications are given through an intravenous line, although some are administered in pill form. Chemotherapy is a harsh regime, which often makes people feel more ill than the illness they are suffering from; however, it has been proved very effective.
Chemotherapy is administered usually in cycles where each cycle consists of a period of intensive treatment that lasts for a few days or weeks followed by a week of recovery. Most patients with breast cancer have two to four cycles of chemotherapy to start with before tests are performed to see what effects it has had on the cancer.
The most common side effects are loss of hair, loss of appetite, fatigue, vomiting and low blood cell count making the patient more susceptible to infections, feeling sick or tired. Many notice that they bleed more than usual, especially from gums, sores and small scrapes etc.