Breast cancer. It's the diagnosis virtually all women fear, and understandably so. Breast cancer strikes one of every eight women in this country and almost everyone knows someone who has been diagnosed with this disease.
However, with early diagnosis and advances in treatment, breast cancer can be treated successfully and, in many cases, cured.
At first, the treatment options can seem scary and confusing. Your surgeon or oncologist should be able to explain individual treatment recommendations in detail, but here is a brief outline of how breast cancer is generally treated.
Surgery is usually the first line of treatment for breast cancer unless the tumor is very large or has spread to other parts of the body, in which case chemotherapy may be needed first. The surgical options for breast cancer include breast-conserving surgery (also called lumpectomy or partial mastectomy) and mastectomy. Lumpectomy removes the tumor and some surrounding normal breast tissue, whereas mastectomy removes the entire breast. Which option is best depends on tumor size, breast size, and personal preference, as well as other aspects of the medical history. If mastectomy is performed, breast reconstruction can be done during the same surgery or at a later time.
During the lumpectomy or mastectomy, some of the lymph nodes in the armpit will likely be removed to determine if the cancer has spread (lymph nodes in the underarm are the first place breast cancer spreads). For early breast cancers, sentinel lymph node biopsy is a technique in which the lymph nodes that first drain the breast are identified and sampled. If cancer is not found in the "sentinel" nodes, no additional lymph nodes need to be removed. This has the advantage of faster recovery and less risk of lymphedema (swelling of the arm).