Medically reviewed by Dr. Megan Arndts, General Surgeon with specialization in Breast Surgery at Wilson Health. Learn more about Dr. Arndts.
If you or a loved one is facing a recent diagnosis of breast cancer, you may be dealing with a myriad of emotions. From feelings of disbelief, sadness, fear and even anger, it’s important to remember that it’s okay to feel this way. Reaching out to your medical team, friends and family can help provide the additional support and understanding you need.
Sometimes it can also be overwhelming to sort through medical terminology and options as you prepare for treatment. To provide a clearer understanding of what to expect with a new diagnosis of breast cancer, we’re sharing how to navigate pathology results and what common treatments are used.
Newly Diagnosed with Breast Cancer: Understand Your Pathology Results
When you have a biopsy or tissue removed during surgery, a pathologist will examine it under a microscope to diagnose breast cancer. The results will be presented in a pathology report and may include the following information:
- Type of breast cancer - There are numerous types of breast cancer, but they typically fall into two categories: invasive and non-invasive. Although non-invasive breast cancer can’t spread, the cells may change over time and later become invasive breast cancer.
- Size of the cancer - The size of the breast cancer contributes to part of the diagnosis, but it’s not the only factor. It’s also important to note that a smaller size may not indicate the cancer is slow-growing. Similarly, a larger size may be slow-growing. If there is more than one area detected, each will be measured.
- Grade of the cancer - The grade of the cancer is assigned according to how quickly the cancer cells are growing and how different they are from normal breast cells. There are three grades of invasive breast cancer with Grade 1 being more slow-growing and Grade 3 being more fast-growing.
- Location of cancer cells in the lymph vessels or nodes - Pathologists check for the presence of cancer cells in the lymph vessels and also in the lymph nodes. Detecting the location can help determine whether the breast cancer is spreading somewhere else.
- Hormones in cancer cells - The presence of certain types of hormones in breast cancer cells can help cancer grow. Examining these findings can help direct a course of treatment.
Explore the Three Main Areas of Breast Cancer Treatment
Once your doctor goes through the pathology results with you, you’ll have a better understanding of your new diagnosis and what treatments might be best for you. There are three key specialty areas commonly used for treating breast cancer. You may be treated using a combination of all three, or your treatment may only include one or two modalities.
Breast cancer surgeons specialize in breast diseases and work with a team of physicians to perform surgeries and other diagnostic procedures. Your physician advises surgery to treat breast cancer in this oncology area.
There are two main types of surgery to remove breast cancer:
- Breast-conserving surgery - This type of surgery removes the cancer and some surrounding normal tissue.
- Mastectomy - This type of surgery removes the entire breast, and a double mastectomy refers to removing both breasts.
Surgery often accompanies other types of treatment, either before or after surgery — and sometimes both.
Medical oncologists use systemic therapies to treat the entire body. These treatments frequently include chemotherapy and hormone therapy for individuals with breast cancer.
- Chemotherapy - Chemotherapy uses drugs to treat cancer. The drugs are usually given through a vein by injection or by infusion. Chemotherapy is administered in cycles, allowing the body to rest and recover from side effects between treatments.
- Hormonal therapy - Hormonal therapy uses drugs to interfere with the body’s hormonal stimulation of tumor growth. This type of therapy is often used after surgery and over a duration of at least five years.
Radiation oncologists use high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells in a controlled way. This type of treatment is usually started after surgery and includes two main types:
- External beam radiation therapy - This type of therapy is the most common form used for women with breast cancer. A machine is used outside the body to direct radiation on the areas only affected by cancer. External beam radiation is typically given three to six weeks for five days a week.
- Brachytherapy - This type of therapy is also known as internal radiation, where a device with radioactive pellets is placed inside the area cancer has been removed. Brachytherapy can sometimes be used by itself for women who have had breast-conserving surgery, instead of directing radiation to the whole breast.
Questions to Ask About Your Breast Cancer Treatment Options
When considering your treatment options, it’s essential that you understand the goals, possible side effects and benefits of each. Take time to jot down any questions you have and review them with your doctor.
It’s also a good idea to bring someone with you so they can assist in writing notes, so you can focus on listening and making sure you get all your questions answered regarding your new diagnosis. And if possible, you may even consider getting a second opinion.
Here are some questions to consider asking your doctor:
- What are the benefits of this treatment?
- What side effects may I experience?
- How long will my treatment last?
- Will the treatment prevent me from working or performing my everyday activities?
- Do I have other treatment options?
- How soon will the treatment begin?
- Are there other tests I can do that may help direct the best treatment for me?
- What are the chances my cancer will return after treatment?
- If the cancer returns, what treatment options will I have?
When surgery is a treatment option, consider asking the surgeon:
- What are the pros and cons of having breast-conserving surgery versus a mastectomy?
- What will my recovery look like?
- How long will I be in the hospital?
- What will my scar look like?
- Can I have breast reconstruction surgery? If so, when?
- What side effects could I experience?
To learn more about our women’s health services, visit Women’s Health at Wilson Health.