Treatments for Breast Cancer

The first goal of breast cancer treatment is to remove the tumor, or tumors, from the body. The second goal is to make sure the cancer won’t return. Washington University breast cancer specialists at Siteman use surgery, systemic therapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy – either alone or in combination – to give patients the best possible outcomes.

If your breast cancer is more advanced and you haven’t had success with more traditional treatments, a clinical trial may lead to a more positive outcome. Siteman offers more clinical trials than any other center in the region, many of which are led by Washington University Physicians and scientists. If a clinical trial is your best treatment option, your care team will work together to find one that could be a match for you.

How is breast cancer treated?

Patients with breast cancer typically receive one or more of the following treatments:

  • Surgery
  • Systemic therapy (chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and molecularly-targeted therapy)
  • Radiation therapy
  • Immunotherapy

What surgeries are done for breast cancer?

Patients with breast cancer, especially those in the early stages, are often treated with surgery to remove the tumor.

If the tumor is large, the surgeon will typically opt to remove the entire breast. This procedure is called a mastectomy. Sometimes, patients voluntarily choose to undergo a mastectomy in an effort to prevent the cancer from returning. Be sure to discuss your wishes and concerns with your physicians.

If the tumor is small, the surgeon can sometimes remove it while leaving much of the breast tissue intact. This procedure is called a breast-conserving surgery, or a lumpectomy.

When a patient has elected to have a breast reconstruction following surgery for breast cancer, surgeons at Siteman will use innovative techniques to remove the cancer safely while preparing the breast for a successful reconstruction or other cosmetic procedure.

Learn more about breast cancer surgery.

What are systemic therapies for breast cancer?

Chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and molecularly-targeted therapy are the main systemic therapies for breast cancer. They are medicines and can be delivered through IV infusions, pills, or injections. Each has a different purpose:

  • Chemotherapy kills cancer cells.
  • Molecularly-targeted therapy attacks the molecular changes that make cancer cells grow and spread.
  • Hormone therapy reduces the risk of cancer recurrence in patients with hormone-sensitive cancers. It is not the same as hormone-replacement therapy.

You may receive one of these therapies or several in combination, depending on the type and stage of your cancer.

Learn more about systemic therapies.

What is radiation therapy for breast cancer?

Radiation therapy is a method of killing cancer cells using high-energy X-ray beams. The radiation can come from a source outside the body, or can be placed inside the body temporarily for a high and precise dose. Most breast cancer patients will undergo radiation therapy over the course of their treatments.

Siteman offers a variety of radiation therapies.

What is immunotherapy for breast cancer?

Immunotherapy is a treatment that trains the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Siteman researchers are now participating in clinical trials to test this form of therapy. The immunotherapies available at Siteman include immune checkpoint inhibitors, vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, and biologic therapy. If you are interested in immunotherapy, be sure to discuss it with your physician to see if you would be a good candidate.

Get additional information about breast cancer immunotherapy.