What To Expect During Treatment For Breast Cancer, According To An Oncologist

After a patient receives a breast cancer diagnosis, they will work with a team of specialists to determine the treatment plan that's right for them.

Irene M. Kang, M.D., is the medical director of women's health medical oncology at City of Hope Orange County and a medical oncologist specializing in breast cancer at the City of Hope Orange County Lennar Foundation Cancer Center. "Just like every patient, every breast cancer diagnosis is different," Dr. Kang says in an exclusive interview with Health Digest. "The course of treatment that is best for you depends on a variety of factors, including your type of breast cancer, the stage and wanted outcome," she states. Generally speaking, however, treatment options most often involve surgery, radiation therapy, and medications. This can range from chemotherapy to hormone therapy to targeted therapy, Dr. Kang notes.

"While treatments can differ, we know that an early diagnosis is key and results in better treatment outcomes for patients," Dr. Kang states. "If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, it is essential to seek care from an expert who specializes in your type of cancer and can provide access to the latest in advanced breast cancer care."

Why different treatment options may be used

Dr. Kang goes on to tell Health Digest under what circumstances different treatment options might be appropriate for a patient. "Based on the size of the tumor, location and spread, your care team may recommend surgery with either a mastectomy or lumpectomy with lymph node surgery," she states. "Radiation therapy is often used after surgery. It is typically prescribed following breast-conserving surgery or a mastectomy to reduce the chance of the cancer returning."

"Chemotherapy can be recommended before surgery or after to eradicate any remaining cancer cells and prevent local and distant recurrence," Dr. Kang explains. "We know that around two-thirds of breast cancers depend on hormones to drive their growth, making endocrine therapy a valuable option for many patients."

While surgery, radiation therapy, and medications remain the primary treatment methods available for patients diagnosed with breast cancer, Dr. Kang shares that she and her colleagues are hard at work to expand patient care options in the future. "Through City of Hope's clinical trial program, we are working to create novel treatment methods for all breast cancers," she says.

How your care team can support you during treatment

Dr. Kang explains that in her experience, many patients and their families can expect to feel emotional throughout the breast cancer treatment process. "Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be an overwhelming time for patients and their family," Dr. Kang states.

"The most important decision in your cancer journey happens before starting treatment and that is selecting an oncologist that specializes in your type of breast cancer," she says. "Having the right care team by your side to support you and provide access to the best treatment is vital for better outcomes." She explains that this applies to both short-term and long-term patient care as well. "As a medical oncologist who sees patients with breast cancer every day, I know how important it is to have an unparalleled range of supportive care and long-term programs available to patients and their families to help cope with the treatment and recovery," she says.

Dr. Kang goes on to explain how your healthcare team will not only provide support but can serve as an informational resource too. "Your care team will be able to address concerns surrounding symptoms and side effects, such as fatigue, nausea, pain or lymphedema, as well as coping with stress, emotional, social and spiritual issues during this time," she explains. "Supportive care is critical during breast cancer treatment and can help patients navigate their journey with cancer, address fertility and intimacy concerns, and maintain a healthy lifestyle."

Possible treatment side effects patients can expect

"No two individuals are exactly alike, so one patient with breast cancer may experience different kinds, levels and durations of side effects than another patient, even if they receive the same treatment," Dr. Kang explains.

She states that chemotherapy, in particular, can produce a variety of different side effects. "During and after chemotherapy for breast cancer, some common issues you may experience include physical changes like fatigue, hair loss, nausea, and numbness or pain in the hands and feet, and emotional changes that can include anxiety and depression," says Dr. Kang.

However, she points out that patients should not have to endure the experience solely on their own. "It is important to remember that you are not alone: side effects are common in cancer treatment, and there are ways to lessen their impact and increase your well-being." Again, Dr. Kang reiterates the importance of patients using their care team as a resource. "Talk with your physician or care team right away about any physical and emotional side effects you are experiencing and how they can be managed," she states.

How patients can best prepare for treatment

"Preparing for breast cancer treatment is critically important," Dr. Kang states. She explains that one of the best ways to do so is through conversation. "Start by talking openly with your physician and asking lots of questions. Good, two-way communication – both giving and getting information in [an] active partnership – improves the quality of care you receive."

"One option to consider is getting a second opinion from a physician who specializes in breast cancer and understands the latest advances in breast cancer research and treatment," Dr. Kang offers. "Consulting with a breast cancer specialist will help ensure your diagnosis is correct and you are making fully informed decisions about the treatment plan – before it begins."

Dr. Kang wraps up the interview by highlighting how a patient's care team often consists of more than just cancer specialists. Rather, their care team will likely be made up of multiple healthcare workers in different fields in order to provide more well-rounded care. "In addition to your personal support network and the physicians who lead your care, your care team may include a range of professional experts such as specialty nurses, patient navigators, clinical social workers and more, who are there to partner with you and offer personalized guidance and support before, during and after treatment."