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Types of Treatment for Breast Cancer

There are different types of treatment for patients with breast cancer.

You and your cancer care team will work together to decide your treatment plan, which may include more than one type of treatment. Many factors will be considered, such as the stage and grade of the cancer, whether certain biomarkers are present, your overall health, and your preferences. Your plan will include information about your cancer, the goals of treatment, your treatment options and the possible side effects, and the expected length of treatment.

Talking with your cancer care team before treatment begins about what to expect will be helpful. You’ll want to learn what you need to do before treatment begins, how you’ll feel while going through it, and what kind of help you will need. To learn more, see Questions to Ask Your Doctor about Your Treatment.

The following types of treatment are used:


Most patients with breast cancer have surgery to remove the cancer.

Sentinel lymph node biopsy is the removal of the sentinel lymph node during surgery. The sentinel lymph node is the first lymph node in a group of lymph nodes to receive lymphatic drainage from the primary tumor. It is the first lymph node the cancer is likely to spread to from the primary tumor. A radioactive substance and/or blue dye is injected near the tumor. The substance or dye flows through the lymph ducts to the lymph nodes. The first lymph node to receive the substance or dye is removed. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. If cancer cells are not found, it may not be necessary to remove more lymph nodes. Sometimes, a sentinel lymph node is found in more than one group of nodes. After the sentinel lymph node biopsy, the surgeon removes the tumor using breast-conserving surgery or mastectomy. If cancer cells were found, more lymph nodes will be removed through a separate incision (cut). This is called a lymph node dissection.

Types of surgery include the following:

  • Breast-conserving surgery is an operation to remove the cancer and some normal tissue around it, but not the breast itself. Part of the chest wall lining may also be removed if the cancer is near it. This type of surgery may also be called lumpectomy, partial mastectomy, segmental mastectomy, quadrantectomy, or breast-sparing surgery.
  • Total mastectomy is surgery to remove the whole breast that has cancer. This procedure is also called a simple mastectomy. Some of the lymph nodes under the arm may be removed and checked for cancer. This may be done at the same time as the breast surgery or after. This is done through a separate incision.
  • Modified radical mastectomy is surgery to remove the whole breast that has cancer. This may include removal of the nipple, areola (the dark-colored skin around the nipple), and skin over the breast. Most of the lymph nodes under the arm are also removed.

Chemotherapy may be given before surgery to remove the tumor. When given before surgery, chemotherapy will shrink the tumor and reduce the amount of tissue that needs to be removed during surgery. Treatment given before surgery is called preoperative therapy or neoadjuvant therapy.

After the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or hormone therapy after surgery, to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called postoperative therapy or adjuvant therapy.

If a patient is going to have a mastectomy, breast reconstruction (surgery to rebuild a breast’s shape after a mastectomy) may be considered. Breast reconstruction may be done at the time of the mastectomy or at some time after. The reconstructed breast may be made with the patient’s own (nonbreast) tissue or by using implants filled with saline or silicone gel. Before the decision to get an implant is made, patients can call the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Center for Devices and Radiologic Health at 1-888-INFO-FDA (1-888-463-6332) or visit the FDA website for more information on breast implants.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:

  • External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the area of the body with cancer.
  • Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.

The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. External radiation therapy is used to treat breast cancer. Internal radiation therapy with strontium-89 (a radionuclide) is used to relieve bone pain caused by breast cancer that has spread to the bones. Strontium-89 is injected into a vein and travels to the surface of the bones. Radiation is released and kills cancer cells in the bones.

Learn more about Radiation to Treat Cancer and Radiation Therapy Side Effects.


Chemotherapy (also called chemo) uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. Chemotherapy for breast cancer is usually systemic, meaning it is injected into a vein or given by mouth. When given this way, the drugs enter the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body.

To learn more about how chemotherapy works, how it is given, common side effects, and more, see Chemotherapy to Treat Cancer and Chemotherapy and You: Support for People With Cancer. 

Learn more about Drugs Approved for Breast Cancer.

Hormone therapy

Hormone therapy (also called endocrine therapy) slows or stops the growth of hormone-sensitive tumors by blocking the body’s ability to produce hormones or by interfering with the effects of hormones on breast cancer cells. Hormones are substances made by glands in the body and circulated in the bloodstream. Some hormones can cause certain cancers to grow. If tests show that the cancer cells have places where hormones can attach (receptors), drugs, surgery, or radiation therapy is used to reduce the production of hormones or block them from working. This is called ovarian ablation.

Types of hormone therapy for breast cancer include:

  • aromatase inhibitor therapy (such as , , or ).
  • luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LHRH) agonist therapy (such as or ).

Learn more about Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells. Your doctor may suggest biomarker tests to help predict your response to certain targeted therapy drugs. Learn more about Biomarker Testing for Cancer Treatment. Several types of targeted therapy are used to treat breast cancer.

  • Monoclonal antibodies are immune system proteins made in the laboratory to treat many diseases, including cancer. As a cancer treatment, these antibodies can attach to a specific target on cancer cells or other cells that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies are able to then kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies are given by infusion. They may be used alone or to carry drugs, toxins, or radioactive material directly to cancer cells. Monoclonal antibodies may be used in combination with chemotherapy as adjuvant therapy.

    Monoclonal antibodies used to treat breast cancer include:

  • Tyrosine kinase inhibitors block signals needed for tumors to grow. Tyrosine kinase inhibitors may be used with other anticancer drugs as adjuvant therapy. Tyrosine kinase inhibitors used to treat HER2-positive breast cancer include:
  • Cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors block proteins called cyclin-dependent kinases, which cause the growth of cancer cells. CDK inhibitors may be given with hormone therapy, such as or , to treat hormone receptor–positive, HER2-negative breast cancer. CDK inhibitors used to treat breast cancer include:
  • Mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) inhibitors block a protein called mTOR, which may keep cancer cells from growing and prevent the growth of new blood vessels that tumors need to grow. mTOR inhibitors used to treat HER2-negative breast cancer that is hormone receptor positive include:
  • PARP inhibitors block DNA repair and may cause cancer cells to die. PARP inhibitors used to treat HER2-negative breast cancer with mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene and include:

Learn more about Targeted Therapy to Treat Cancer.


Immunotherapy helps a person's immune system fight cancer. Your doctor may suggest biomarker tests to help predict your response to certain immunotherapy drugs. Learn more about Biomarker Testing for Cancer Treatment.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors are a type of immunotherapy used to treat breast cancer:

  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors block proteins called checkpoints that are made by some types of immune system cells, such as T cells, and some cancer cells. These checkpoints help keep immune responses from being too strong and sometimes can keep T cells from killing cancer cells. When these checkpoints are blocked, T cells can kill cancer cells better. Immune checkpoint inhibitors used to treat breast cancer include:

    This drug works in more than one way to kill cancer cells. It is also considered targeted therapy because it targets specific changes or substances in cancer cells.

 Learn more about Immunotherapy to Treat Cancer and Immunotherapy Side Effects.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be an option.

Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the website.

To learn more about clinical trials, see Clinical Trials Information for Patients and Caregivers.

Treatment for breast cancer may cause side effects.

For information about side effects that begin during treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.

Some treatments for breast cancer may cause side effects that continue or appear months or years after treatment has ended. These are called late effects.

Late effects of radiation therapy are not common, but may include:

  • Inflammation of the lung after radiation therapy to the breast, especially when chemotherapy is given at the same time.
  • Arm lymphedema, especially when radiation therapy is given after lymph node dissection. For more information, see Lymphedema.
  • In women younger than 45 years who receive radiation therapy to the chest wall after mastectomy, there may be a higher risk of developing breast cancer in the other breast.

Late effects of chemotherapy depend on the drugs used, but may include:

  • heart failure.
  • blood clots.
  • premature menopause.
  • a second cancer, such as leukemia.

Late effects of targeted therapy with trastuzumab, lapatinib, or pertuzumab may include:

  • heart problems, such as heart failure.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose or stage the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Navigating Care disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information. This information was sourced and adapted from Adapted from the National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ®) Cancer Information Summaries on