If you have found a lump or notice sudden changes to the look, feel, or sensation of your breast, the first thing to do is contact your physician immediately and set up an appointment. Your physician will conduct a breast exam, similar to the self-exam you perform monthly, and determine if additional testing is required. If they determine that is the case, they will probably order a mammogram or ultrasound, which will help them better understand the nature of the lump. They should also order a biopsy, which will remove a core tissue sample of the lump for testing in a laboratory; biopsy is the only definitive method for making a breast cancer diagnosis, so if the mammogram and/or ultrasound indicate you possibly have a cancerous mass, this will be the final step. Biopsies are performed using a procedure known as needle localization, whereby advanced imaging like x-ray or ultrasound is used to precisely guide a needle to the site of a lump or mass for diagnostic biopsy. Needle localization can also be used in a therapeutic capacity depending on the type of tumor you have.
If your lump biopsy comes back positive for breast cancer, do not panic. You may find support from loved ones or friends. You should begin to search for a surgeon who is experienced in the treatment of breast cancer. You may get help from your primary physician or from friends. If you have received a referral from a hospital based system, such as a mammography unit, you do NOT have to see that surgeon. That referral may be based on that particular surgeon working for the hospital system and seeing that surgeon may not be in your best interests.
Breast cancer affects hundreds of thousands of women a year, so there are some very robust support groups both in-person and online that are invaluable resources for women recently diagnosed with the disease. Be careful who you trust on the internet. The best site to check is NCI.GOV. You may enter the area for breast cancer and you can rely on the information you receive from this site. You should also begin to lean on your support system—be it family, friends, or both—as you are facing a big challenge and this support will prove invaluable to your recovery.
There are a number of treatment options available to women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. In almost all cases, surgery to remove cancerous tissue will play a central role in your treatment regimen. There are a number of surgical procedures used to treat breast cancer, including:
- Lumpectomy – the precision removal of a cancerous lump, without removing the entire breast. This is commonly known as a breast-conserving surgery as it allows patients to keep the majority of their own breast tissue.
- Mastectomy – the removal of the entire breast. This procedures aims to remove all of the cancerous tissue by excising the entire breast.
- Sentinel node biopsy – the removal of the lymph nodes that receive the drainage from your tumor (sentinel node) for laboratory testing. If these sentinel nodes do not have signs of cancerous cells, then the chances of lymph nodes further up the chain having cancerous cells is very low.
- Axillary lymph node dissection – if the sentinel node biopsy uncovers cancerous cells, your surgeon may recommend removing additional lymph nodes in the underarm area to prevent the further spread of cancerous cells.
- Prophylactic mastectomy – in certain cases, your surgeon may recommend removing an otherwise healthy breast to eliminate the possibility of that breast developing cancer.
There are also non-surgical options that can be pursued in combination with surgical treatment or, in some cases, on their own to eliminate cancerous tissue. Radiation therapy uses focused beams of energy, typically protons, to kill cancer cells, while chemotherapy involves administering patients powerful drugs with the intention of destroying cancer cells. Hormone therapy, which is newer than chemotherapy or radiation therapy, relies on medications that block hormones from attaching to certain tumors, shrinking or killing them in the process. These non-surgical treatment modalities are typically deployed in conjunction with a lumpectomy or mastectomy to ensuring no cancerous cells are left in the body following treatment.
If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, the most important thing you can do is ensure you are getting the best treatment possible. Having a treatment team that you trust is essential to ensuring positive outcomes. With that in place, you can begin to filter through your options for treatment and settle on an approach that is clinically sound and right for you.