Treatment overview

For most women, the first treatment for breast cancer is surgery to remove it. This is usually combined with additional treatments to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back. Treatment given after surgery is called adjuvant treatment. These treatments may include radiotherapy, hormonal therapy, chemotherapy and targeted therapy with a drug called trastuzumab (Herceptin®).

Sometimes doctors give treatments before surgery to shrink the cancer, making it easier to remove. This is called neo-adjuvant treatment.

Your doctor and breast care nurse will explain the treatments they think are best for you. They will ask about your preferences, explain the options available and can help you if you need to make decisions about treatment.

Surgery

Surgery is one of the main treatments for breast cancer. Your surgeon may advise you to have either one of the following operations:

  • breast-conserving surgery – an operation to remove the cancer and some surrounding normal breast tissue
  • a mastectomy – an operation to remove the whole breast.

With both operations, you will usually need some or all of the lymph nodes in your armpit removed. Some women also have breast reconstruction at the same time as surgery. Reconstruction can also be done at a later time.

Adjuvant treatments

You are usually offered one or more of the following treatments after surgery to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back:

Radiotherapy

After breast-conserving surgery, your doctor will usually advise you to have radiotherapy to the rest of the breast. This reduces the risk of the cancer coming back in that area. After a mastectomy, some women need radiotherapy to the chest.

Some women will need radiotherapy to the lymph nodes near the breast.

Chemotherapy

If the cancer is large, is in the lymph nodes or is grade 3, your doctor will usually talk to you about having chemotherapy. Women with triple negative or HER2 positive breast cancer are also likely to have chemotherapy.

Hormonal therapy

If the cancer is oestrogen-receptor positive, your doctor will ask you to take hormonal therapy for a number of years.

Targeted therapy

If you have HER2 positive breast cancer, you will usually have treatment with trastuzumab and chemotherapy.

Research into breast cancer is going on all the time. Better treatments mean more women are cured or living for longer. Your breast specialist may ask you if you would like to take part in a clinical trial.

Back to Understanding your diagnosis

Just been diagnosed

Just been diagnosed with cancer? We're here for you every step of the way. There are many ways we can help.

Staging and grading

Doctors will stage and grade the cancer using further tests. This helps them to choose the most appropriate type of treatment.

Receptors for breast cancer

Some breast cancer cells have receptors (proteins) that affect how the cancer grows. They respond well to hormonal therapies.