A “Typical” Breast Cancer Treatment Timeline

No two patients will have the exact same experience as they are treated for breast cancer. Everyone’s journey is unique. However, there may be some common experiences between patients and it is helpful to have an idea as to what you should expect.

Some may have noticed a lump or mass themselves and actually suspected cancer themselves, prior to taking their concerns to their physician. Some are diagnosed after their health care provider found a mass or lump during a routine exam and investigated further with a mammogram. Regardless of how the suspicion came about, the first few steps after detection of a mass are typical of most patients.

  • You will talk to your husband/wife or significant other about your (or your doctor’s) suspicions.
  • If you found a lump or mass, you should call your doctor to set up an examination.
  • During your exam, you will have an opportunity to ask questions about what kind of testing you should undergo and to express any other concerns you have at this point.
  • You undergo whatever testing your health care provider recommends, and then wait for the results.

Once a diagnosis is made, there will be a lot of things that seem to be going on all at once. First, you meet with your doctor to go over the test results and find out the details about your cancer, including type, stage and biology of the tumor (if available at that point). If the cancer is isolated to the breast alone and has not spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body, it is called “early stage” breast cancer (Stage 0, I, II).1If it has spread extensively to lymph nodes and/or other parts of the body, it is “late stage” (Stage III, IV).

After the diagnosis, you must decide where you want to be treated. The doctor that made your diagnosis should be able to help you find a location and even other doctors that will participate in treating your cancer as a team. As you make progress toward beginning treatment, you may want to consider the following suggestions.

  • Bring a friend or loved one to your doctor’s appointments with you. Having an extra set of ears to hear what is being said, and someone besides yourself that can take notes while you listen may be very helpful for you. Since you may or may not know how you will handle such information, it always helps to have a familiar touch or shoulder to cry on should you need it.
  • If your doctor permits it, you could record your conversation with the doctor so that you can replay it later and take notes yourself.
  • If you have thought of any at this point, write down a list of questions that you would like answered, if possible.
  • Keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings as you begin this journey.

Before you begin treatment, it is best to learn about all of your treatment options before you make a decision. Allow yourself the time you need to educate yourself about the various treatment options that are available. Your cancer has likely been present for several years and taking a few weeks to educate yourself completely will not change your outcome. Making a hasty treatment decision could completely change how smoothly your treatment progresses.2

Clinical trials test new therapies including drugs that have not been approved for general distribution yet by the Food and Drug Administration. If you think you might want to participate in a clinical trial, ask your doctor for more information. If you think you may consider breast reconstruction, talk to other breast cancer patients and breast cancer survivors about their experience. Some treatment options will affect which reconstruction techniques are available to you.

In general, these are some of the things each woman should do prior to beginning treatment.

  • Find out all you can about treatment options, clinical trials, and complementary therapies that may be available to you.
  • Think about whether or not you would consider breast reconstruction.
  • Reach out to other breast cancer patients and survivors for advice.
  • Discuss the diagnosis, your thoughts and decisions with your family, as it will affect not only your life but theirs as well.
  • Look into your insurance policy and find out what is covered, what is not covered, how to submit claims, etc.
  • That will help you plan your budget and look into how your treatment will affect your finances.

Once you begin treatment, your focus should be on your health. You will be meeting with several different health care providers, collecting copious amounts of paperwork, all while trying to continue doing your daily activities. Here are some things that you might want to try.

  • Do not assume that your health care provider knows what is on your mind. Always be open and honest with them about your fears and concerns.
  • If your family and friends tell you that they want to help, let them. Accept help when it is offered, you will need the support.
  • Create a filing system to keep your medical records, insurance forms, test results and all other paperwork organized.

Once your treatment is finished, you should relax. Not all patients will survive treatment, but if you have made it through and there is no evidence of cancer within your body, you can now consider yourself a survivor. You can begin to think about getting your life back to “normal,” although “normal” is probably going to look and feel differently now. Here are a few things you might want to consider doing after you finish your treatment.

  • Give yourself a chance to experience the emotions that you feel.
  • Make connections with other breast cancer survivors and share your experiences.
  • Show your appreciation to your spouse or significant other and your children (if you have any) so that they know how thankful you are for their help when you needed them.
  • Take care of yourself—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

As this journey ends, reflect on what you have learned. Keep your follow-up appointments. Enjoy living!!


1 Early-stage breast cancer treatment fact sheet. (2011) Retrieved from Womenshealth.gov at www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/early-stage-breast-cancer.cfm#c

2  Kaelin, C. (2005). Living Through Breast Cancer. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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