Only lung cancer kills more women each year in the United States than breast cancer does. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that over 184,000 new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in women in 1996 (ACS Breast). Although these statistics are alarming, there are a number of treatment options available for those that are diagnosed with breast cancer.
The best way to treat any disease is to prevent it. Since little is known about breast cancer, there are no established rules for prevention. The ACS recommends that women age twenty and older perform monthly breast self-exams, and it also suggests clinical examinations every three years (ACS Breast). Mammography is also a wonderful tool for detecting tumors; however, there is conflicting data on when and how often women should have mammograms. What is known is that mammography is the best way to determine if a palpable lump is actually cancerous or not.
Treatment methods for breast cancer can be lumped in two major categories; local or systemic. Local treatments are used to destroy or control the cancer cells in a specific area of the body. Surgery and radiation therapy are considered local treatments. Systemic treatments are used to destroy or control cancer cells anywhere in the body. Chemotherapy and hormonal therapy are considered systemic treatments.
Surgery is the most common treatment for breast cancer. Although there are many different types of breast cancer surgery, they all fit into a few basic categories. An operation that aims to remove most or all of the breast is called a mastectomy. If at all possible, doctors shy away from mastectomies due to the side effects which include loss of strength in the closest arm, swelling of the arm, and limitation of shoulder movement. If a mastectomy must be performed, the physician will often suggest post surgical reconstruction of the breast (Kushner 37).
Another type of breast cancer surgery is called breast-sparing surgery. This category would include lumpectomies and segmental mastectomies. In this situation, doctors remove only the tumor and make an attempt at sparing the rest of the breast tissue. These procedures are often followed by radiation therapy to destroy any cancer cells that may remain in the area. In most cases, the surgeon also removes lymph nodes under the arm to help determine whether cancer cells have entered the lymphatic system.
Radiation therapy is another common treatment for breast cancer. Radiation involves the use of high-energy x-rays to damage cancer cells and retard further growth. The radiation may come from a radioactive source outside the body, or it can come from radioactive pellets placed directly in the breasts. It is not uncommon for a patient to receive both internal and external radiation. For external radiation, patients must visit the hospital or clinic each day. When this regimen follows breast-sparing surgery, the treatments are given five days a week for five to six weeks. At the end of that time, an extra "boost" of radiation is often given to the place where the tumor was removed. Hospital stays are required for implant radiation. Some common side effects of radiation therapy include swelling of the breast and dry skin at the radiation site.
Chemotherapy is one of the systemic therapies doctors use to fight breast cancer. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells, and it usually involves a combination of those drugs. Traditional chemotherapy is administered in cycles; a treatment period followed by a recovery period, then another treatment, and so on (NIH 23). Like radiation therapy, chemotherapy can be administered on an outpatient basis. Although chemotherapy works to kill cancer cells, some of the side effects almost make treatment unbearable. Common side effects include nausea, decrease of appetite, hair loss, vaginal sores, infertility, and fatigue (ACS For Women 32). Most of these effects,...