Knowledge is power when taking the first steps against cancer
“You have breast cancer.” Four words that can turn anyone’s world upside down. These four words suddenly throw everything into question—your future, your family and yourself.
One in eight women will get breast cancer.
If you or a family member just received a breast cancer diagnosis, you may be wondering, “What now?” First, take the time to collect your thoughts. Stay hopeful and know you’re not alone. It’s completely normal to be scared or uncertain. Communication with your doctor is key to a successful treatment and calm mind.
“Cancer can be very scary for patients because the how and why are not always completely understood,” explained Dr. Jacqueline Guerriero, Geisinger breast cancer surgeon. “The best way to handle a breast cancer diagnosis is to talk to your doctor and be as informed as possible. Knowledge really is power, so the more you understand your cancer and treatment options, the less worried you’ll likely be.”
Here are some tips on what to do after you’re diagnosed with breast cancer.
Understand your diagnosis
While the term “breast cancer” sounds like a specific condition, it isn’t.
“Breast cancer includes many different types and subtypes that require different treatments,” said Dr. Guerriero. “Cancer is different from person to person, so when you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you will need to ask more questions to fully understand your condition.”
Be sure to ask your doctor about the tumor type, cancer grade, whether it is invasive or non-invasive, cancer stage, lymph node status and hormone status.
Tumor type: There are three types of tumors—benign (harmless), pre-malignant (pre-cancerous) and malignant (cancerous). There are also specific names for tumors based on their location, appearance and behaviors.
Invasive or non-invasive cancer: Non-invasive cancer will not spread into other tissue, while invasive cancer will. Knowing whether your cancer is invasive or non-invasive will determine your treatment options.
Cancer grade and stage: Cancer has three grades and four stages. The lower the grade, the less chance it will spread. The lower the stage, the more treatable it is.
Lymph node status: The potential for your cancer spreading is based partly on whether it has reached your lymph nodes. Cancers that affect the lymph nodes are more difficult to treat because they can spread more quickly throughout the body.
Hormone receptor status: The presence of hormone receptors, which include estrogen, progesterone and Her-2-Neu, determine whether the cancer is likely to respond to hormone therapy or other treatment regimens.
Understanding the details of your cancer lets you do more research and ask more informed questions. This helps clarify what to expect and what treatment options are available.
Understand your treatment options and side effects
Depending on your specific type of breast cancer, there are many different treatment options. Treatments like chemotherapy or radiation kill cancer cells directly. New cancer treatments, like biological therapy, recruit your immune system to fight the cancer.
Inevitably, most treatments do have side effects, so discuss all your treatment options with your doctor to find which treatment is best for you.
Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells throughout the body, and it is one of the most effective and available methods today.
Chemotherapy can have side effects like fatigue, nausea and hair loss. Be sure you talk to your doctor if they recommend undergoing chemotherapy so you can understand how it might affect you.
Radiation: Radiation treatment kills cancer cells using a beam of high energy radiation (like X-rays or gamma rays) to target and destroy cancer cells while avoiding healthy cells.
Radiation can have side effects such as fatigue, skin irritation and could even cause secondary cancers. However, the benefits of successful radiation often outweigh the risks.
Biological/targeted therapy: New drugs make it possible to fight cancer in new ways. Biological drugs work with your body’s immune system to fight the cancer in a targeted way without chemotherapy or radiation.
Chemoprevention: Estrogen can contribute to breast cancer, particularly after menopause. Chemoprevention drugs can both fight and prevent cancer by stopping the production of estrogen. These drugs are usually taken over five years.
Clinical trials: Talk to your doctor if you’re interested in participating in a clinical trial.
Mastectomy/lumpectomy: Breast cancer needs to be removed surgically. A lumpectomy removes the tumor, while a mastectomy removes the breast. Breast reconstruction surgery can either be done at the same time as, or after a mastectomy or lumpectomy.
The time following your diagnosis can be stressful and confusing, but don’t be afraid to speak up.
“If something about your diagnosis or treatment doesn’t feel right, speak up,” said Dr. Guerriero. “Don’t be afraid to rock the boat. You have a right to be informed, understand and be in control of your treatment.”
Jacqueline Guerriero, DO, is a breast cancer surgeon at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Guerriero or another breast cancer specialist, please call 800-275-6401 or visit Geisinger.org.