Treatment Modality Overview

Often, the appointment where the diagnosis of breast cancer is given is not the appropriate setting to discuss treatment. Most women need some time to let the diagnosis settle before they are ready to hear about the next step, treatment. They often desire to have someone with them for the appointment where treatment is discussed, which is a great idea. That appointment may seem overwhelming since there are so many treatment modalities available and understanding it all in one day can be difficult. Most women do not make their final decision that day either. It is best to leave the appointment and discuss options with the person closest to you, whether it is your spouse, other family member or friend. This is the next step in your battle, so prepare to fight!

Questions You Should Ask When You Begin Treatment

Before you begin treatment you will have many questions for your doctor. It is a good idea to make a list of questions and bring it with you so you can have all of your concerns addressed at once. Here are some suggestions:

  • What stage of cancer do I have based on the current test results?
  • Do you have the results of my hormone receptor tests?
  • Can we review my lab work?
  • Should my family have genetic testing?
  • What preparations do I need to make before treatment begins?
  • What options do I have for treatment?
  • What is my recovery time and will I be limited in what I can do?
  • What is your recommendation? (keep in mind, the final choice is yours, not your doctor’s)

Local Therapy and Systemic Therapy

There are two major classes of breast cancer therapy, local therapy and systemic therapy. Surgery and radiation are local therapy, as they treat the cancer in the breast and axilla (armpit).[1]

Chemotherapy and hormone therapy are systemic therapy, as they use medicine that goes into the blood stream to treat cancer cells that have gone to other organs in the body or are highly suspected to have done so.[2]


The most common treatment for breast cancer is surgery, but it is not typically the only treatment, but part of a treatment regimen. The two major classes of surgery used are “Breast-Conserving Therapy” (BCT) and mastectomy. These will be further classified later. Surgery is sometimes performed as the first step in treating your cancer but this is not always the case. Surgery is not without risk. The major risks of surgery are infection and bleeding and your surgeon will discuss these with you before surgery.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation is used in two major ways. The most common is therapeutic, as it is used after surgery for the sole purpose of preventing the cancer from coming back in the breast and armpit area, termed local recurrence. The other use is for palliation, or pain control, when no other treatment options exist. The goal is to keep you as comfortable as possible when the cancer has invaded nerves or other tissues and is causing pain. Radiation therapy does have side effects which will be discussed in detail later.

The treatment regimen that is best for you will ultimately be determined by you. Your doctor should give you all of the information you need to make the decision and guide you along the way, but be weary of a doctor that tries to make your decision for you. This is your cancer, your breasts, your life and your journey. You are not alone on this journey, but you call the shots. Prepare for battle, it is time to fight!


Surgery. (n.d.). Retrieved from National Breast Cancer Foundation:

2 Ibid

This article was originally published on July 27,2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/2/2015.