Top Ten Things You Should Know About Breast Cancer

1. No two breast cancers are exactly alike.

As a result, the “best” treatment plan for each woman differs. The personalized approach to breast cancer treatment involves making decisions on the basis of many factors, including the type of cancer, the stage of disease, the results of tumor marker testing, the genetic make-up of the tumor, and individual patient preferences. In addition to standard treatments, targeted therapy offers treatment directed at the unique characteristics of an individual tumor.

2. Breast cancer can be treated in a variety of settings.

Cancer treatment centers may be freestanding facilities or they may be affiliated with a community hospital or an academic teaching hospital. Some cancer centers have been recognized by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) for their scientific excellence and extensive resources focused on cancer and cancer-related problems. These centers are described as “NCI-designated cancer centers.” Centers accredited by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers (NAPBC) also offer benefits for women with breast cancer. (See list of centers.)

3. It is acceptable to seek a second opinion.

Getting a second opinion from another pathologist with extensive expertise in interpreting breast cancers can be of benefit, especially if there was difficulty or controversy in interpreting the initial findings. Many health insurance policies will cover a second opinion if you or your doctor requests it. The delay of getting a second opinion usually does not adversely affect the outcome of treatment, but be sure to ask your doctor about this.

4. Clinical trials offer benefits to many women with breast cancer.

People who have participated in a clinical trial have identified several advantages to participation, including having access to the best available care, receiving newer/better treatment, receiving increased medical attention, playing an active role in their own health care, and making a valuable contribution to cancer research. Some risks may also be involved. Talk to your doctor or another member of your health care team to learn more about clinical trials for which you may be eligible. (Learn more about clinical trials.)

5. A team of health care professionals will be involved in your care.

Because most women with breast cancer receive more than one type of treatment, care is planned and given by a team of health care specialists rather than just one physician. This team usually involves close collaboration between a breast surgeon or surgical oncologist, radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, breast radiologist, pathologist, and a breast reconstructive surgeon. Additional health care professionals, such as nurses, physician assistants, nutritionists, social workers and others may also provide care. It is important for you and your family to feel comfortable with your doctors and the recommended multidisciplinary treatment plan.

6. You should be an active participant in decision-making.

Learn as much as you can about your particular type of cancer so that you can be fully informed and prepared to participate in the decision-making about treatment. Your doctors will discuss options, and family and friends may offer advice. But remember that the “right” treatment decision is the one that’s best for you, based on your own perceptions of quality of life. When making a decision about treatment options, consider seeking direct advice from each of the doctors on your team about the benefits and side effects of their portion of therapy.

7. Side effects of treatment can be alleviated.

Treatments for breast cancer may cause side effects, but there are now many ways to manage them. Talk to your doctor about the potential side effects of the treatment or treatments you’ve chosen and ask if there are ways to prevent or reduce these side effects. During treatment, tell your doctor or other member of your health care team about symptoms you have so that they can be managed before they become severe.

8. Help is available for financial and practical issues.

A variety of resources are available to help with expenses related to prescriptions, travel, and health care equipment. In addition, advocacy groups and community-based organizations often offer help with child care, provide transportation, and even supply wigs. Social workers in your cancer center can help guide you to resources in your local area.

9. Support groups offer comfort and strength.

Support groups provide you with an opportunity to talk with people who are facing some of the same challenges. Sharing your experience with others and hearing about their experiences can help reduce feelings of isolation. Many support groups are available online if you’d rather interact with others that way. Be sure to review the list of resources on support groups.

10. You can take control.

A diagnosis of breast cancer is overwhelming, and it is easy to feel as if your life is out of control. But you have the power to overcome the challenges of breast cancer. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctors about treatment options and to state your preferences. Take good care of yourself by getting proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep. Do whatever it takes to help you heal and feel physically and emotionally healthy, whether it be mediation, yoga, relaxation techniques, spirituality, or counseling. Spend time with family and friends and be specific about what you need — and don’t need — from them. Enjoy your favorite activities. Live every day to its fullest.•