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Breast Cancer 101 - Part 2

Posted Oct 13 2010 12:00am
  Part 1 was about breast cancer symptoms and diagnosis. 

There are several forms of breast cancer, and treatments are carefully matched to the type of cancer.

Hormone-Sensitive Breast Cancer

Some types of breast cancer are fueled by the hormones estrogen or progesterone. A biopsy can reveal whether a tumor has receptors for estrogen (ER-positive) and/or progesterone (PR-positive). About two out of three breast cancers are hormone sensitive.There are several medications that keep the hormones from promoting further cancer growth.

HER2-Positive Breast Cancer

In about 20% of patients, breast cancer cells have too many receptors for a protein called HER2. This type of cancer is known as HER2-positive, and it tends to spread faster than other forms of breast cancer. It’s important to determine whether a tumor is HER2-positive, because there are special treatments for this form of cancer.

Breast Cancer Stages

Once breast cancer has been diagnosed, the next step is to determine how big the tumor is and how far the cancer has spread. This process is called staging. Doctors use Stages 0-4 to describe whether cancer is localized to the breast, has invaded nearby lymph nodes, or has spread to other organs, such as the lungs. Knowing the stage and type of breast cancer will help your health care team formulate a treatment strategy.

Breast Cancer Survival Rates

The odds of surviving breast cancer are strongly tied to how early it is found. According to the American Cancer Society, 100% of women with Stage 1 breast cancer live at least five years, compared to women without cancer – and many women in this group remain cancer-free for good.  The more advanced the cancer, the lower this figure becomes. By Stage 4, the five-year relative survival rate declines to 20%. But these rates can improve as more effective treatments are found.

Breast Cancer Surgery

There are many types of breast cancer surgery, from taking out the area around the lump (lumpectomy or breast-conservation surgery) to removing the entire breast (mastectomy.) It’s best to discuss the pros and cons of each of these procedures with your doctor before deciding what’s right for you.

Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It may be used after breast cancer surgery to wipe out any cancer cells that remain. It can also be used along with chemotherapy for treatment of cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. Side effects can include fatigue and swelling or a sunburn-like feeling in the treated area.

Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells anywhere in the body. The drugs are often given by IV, but are sometimes taken by mouth or shot. Chemotherapy may be done after surgery to lower the odds of the cancer coming back. In women with advanced breast cancer, chemotherapy can help control the cancer’s growth. Side effects may include hair loss, nausea, fatigue, and a higher risk of infection.

Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer

Hormone therapy is an effective treatment for women with ER-positive or PR-positive breast cancer. These are cancers that grow more rapidly in response to the hormones estrogen or progesterone. Hormone therapy can block this effect. It is most often used after breast cancer surgery to help keep the cancer from coming back. It may also be used to reduce the chance of breast cancer developing in women who are at high risk.

Targeted Drugs for Breast Cancer

Targeted therapies are newer drugs that target specific properties within cancer cells. For example, women with HER2-positive breast cancer have too much of a protein called HER2. Targeted therapies can stop this protein from promoting the growth of cancer cells. These drugs are often used in combination with chemotherapy. They tend to have milder side effects compared to chemotherapy.

Continued in Part 3...
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