Surgery | Breast Reconstruction | Radiation Therapy | Proton Therapy | Chemotherapy | Endocrine Therapy | Targeted Therapy | Immunotherapy
Different breast cancers start, progress and respond to treatments in different ways. At Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, we choose, combine and schedule your treatments based on what works for your situation. Your care team will make sure you understand each type of treatment and all of your choices.
Breast surgery is very personal, and we want to help you make decisions you feel comfortable with. We will take the time to talk with you about your options, what to expect and any questions you have.
You may be able to have surgery to remove your cancer and keep your healthy breast tissue (lumpectomy), or you may need surgery to remove the entire breast, including the cancer (mastectomy). This will depend mainly on the size of the cancer, where it is and if you have one tumor or several tumors in the breast.
If you have metastatic disease, meaning the cancer has spread to other places in your body, your cancer cannot be fully removed by surgery. So your care team will probably not recommend this form of treatment. However, we may suggest surgery to help with symptoms.
UW Medicine breast surgeons do surgery for Fred Hutch patients at UW Medical Center – Montlake and UW Medical Center – Northwest. All of our surgeons are fellowship-trained in breast surgery/surgical oncology, which means that they are physicians who have done extra training to specialize in cancer surgery.
Your first step will be to meet with your breast surgeon. They will carefully look at your imaging, biopsy results and health needs. They will tell you about your surgery options and explain what we recommend for you and why.
For patients who want it, our breast reconstructive surgeons, who are also from UW Medicine, offer many options. These include same-day reconstruction, which means that reconstruction can be done at the same time as the cancer is removed. Some people decide they do not want reconstruction (also known as “going flat” or aesthetic flat closure). We support whatever you choose.
Our team at the Fred Hutch Breast Health Clinic specializes in helping you prepare for surgery and recover afterward. We are here to understand your needs and help you heal.
If a lumpectomy is not an option for you, you might have a mastectomy. Also, some patients who could have a lumpectomy choose to have a mastectomy instead. A mastectomy is when all breast tissue is removed.
You might need a mastectomy if:
There are many ways to do the surgery. Your surgeon will talk with you about the options, what you prefer and what we recommend for you. Whatever you choose, we will take care to remove your cancer and still get you the best cosmetic results.
The goal of a lumpectomy is to remove all your tumor while leaving as much healthy breast tissue as possible.
If your tumor is larger compared to your breast but you do not need a mastectomy, you may have another option. It is called oncoplastic surgery. In this approach, a breast surgeon takes out the cancer, and in the same operation, a reconstructive surgeon reshapes the breast. Sometimes they reshape the other breast too, reducing or lifting it to even out the breasts.
Sometimes, cancer does not make a lump that surgeons can feel. In this case, they need help to locate and remove exactly the right tissue. At Fred Hutch, we have two methods to choose from:
The sentinel lymph nodes are the first lymph nodes in the armpit that breast cancer would spread to. Typically, surgeons remove these nodes for testing to check if breast cancer has spread there.
The fewer lymph nodes that are removed, the lower your risk of side effects. (Side effects can include nerve problems or lymphedema, which means swelling in the arm.) This is why we do sentinel lymph node biopsy whenever possible rather than automatically removing more nodes.
If the sentinel lymph nodes are cancer-free, you do not need to have any more taken out. If the sentinel lymph nodes have cancer, you may or may not need to have more taken out.
Lymphedema is a type of swelling that can happen after surgery or radiation therapy that affects lymph flow. Our breast and reconstructive surgeons offer advanced ways to prevent or treat this condition. Preventive techniques include axillary reverse mapping (ARM) and microsurgery to restore lymph flow (known as LYMPHA), which is done at the same time as lymph nodes are removed. We also offer surgery to treat lymphedema after it starts, such as lymphovenous bypass (also called lymphaticovenular anastomosis, or LVA) and microsurgical transfer of lymph nodes to the affected area (vascularized lymph node transfer, or VLNT). At Fred Hutch, we also have physical therapists who know how to prevent, detect and treat lymphedema.
The surgeon will go over a range of options with you and explain the timeline for reconstruction so you have all the information to make a decision that meets your goals.
Typically, this visit about reconstruction will happen after your cancer care team makes your treatment plan. This gives you a chance to think about the plan and then decide the next step. We will schedule your reconstruction visit to meet your needs.
It is normal for your first consultation to be just the start. Patients often have more than one visit with their surgeon to talk about and think through all their choices.
Our plastic surgeons are all UW Medicine physicians. They are highly skilled in both ways to restore your breast — with either implants or natural tissue. Implants use synthetic materials (like saline or silicone) to reconstruct the breast. Natural-tissue methods restore your breast using tissue from your own body.
Based on your needs and wishes, we offer reconstruction on the same day as your cancer surgery (while you are still under anesthesia) or later, after you finish cancer treatment. We use many advanced techniques to get the best outcomes. This includes complex options for people with different body types or health concerns and people who want breast reduction.
If you decide not to have reconstruction (also known as “going flat” or aesthetic flat closure), we support you in making the choice that is right for you.
Learn more about Reconstructive Surgery
Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Often, it is done to clear cancer cells that may be left behind in your breast, chest wall or nearby lymph nodes after surgery. A radiation oncologist decides on the type, dose and schedule of your treatment.
Your Fred Hutch radiation oncology team specializes in treating breast cancer. We have extensive experience with every type, grade and stage of the disease. To give you the best outcome, we use our expertise along with state-of-the art equipment and technology to carefully plan and deliver your treatment.
Proton therapy is like conventional external-beam radiation therapy (EBRT), but it uses beams of protons instead of photons.
Using protons instead of photons helps because physicians can aim radiation at the target with less radiation exposure for nearby healthy tissues. This has to do with the way protons deliver radiation to your body. A high dose can be sent to the right area, but the radiation does not keep going to other parts of your body. The goal is to kill cancer cells while reducing the risk of side effects.
Proton therapy (right, above) has unique features that reduce radiation exposure for normal, healthy organs. This is especially important in left-sided breast cancer, because the cancer is close to critical organs like the heart and lungs. Patients with left-sided breast cancer are more likely to develop cardiovascular diseases after getting radiation treatment than patients with right-sided breast cancer.
Our radiation oncologists will look at each case, but protons are often useful in treating:
The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) provided $11.8 million to support a study that will give patients and physicians answers to many important questions about breast cancer control and survival. This is the first clinical trial designed to see how well proton beam therapy works, compared to conventional photon radiation therapy, to treat certain breast cancers and reduce radiation exposure for healthy tissue.
We offer this treatment at our proton therapy facility on the campus of UW Medical Center – Northwest.
If you are ready to request an appointment, you can call us at 844.538.3485. Keep in mind that we will need your medical records to decide if you are a candidate for proton therapy.
Learn more about Proton Therapy
Chemotherapy uses medicines to kill fast-growing cells (like cancer cells) or to keep them from dividing (which is how cancers grow). Your breast medical oncologist prescribes your chemotherapy and other medicine-based treatments. They also set your treatment schedule.
Chemotherapy can be given by infusion or by mouth. For an infusion, liquid medicine is put into a vein through an intravenous (IV) line. This can be a line in your arm (peripheral venous catheter) or a port in your chest (central venous catheter). Cancer nurses who are experts in infusions give you these treatments. They will also watch over you during the treatment. They will help with any medical issues that come up and will keep you comfortable.
Some types of chemotherapy are given as a pill that you take at home.
If you are having surgery, your Fred Hutch care team may recommend chemotherapy, targeted therapy or both before surgery. This is done to shrink your tumor. It may be the best choice if any of these is true:
Shrinking the tumor might mean you can avoid a mastectomy. Instead, you might be able to have a lumpectomy.
Another reason to have chemotherapy (or targeted therapy) before surgery is to see how your cancer responds to the medicine. This may help your team plan your treatment.
Most people start chemotherapy after they have surgery. If you have early-stage breast cancer, you will probably have four to six cycles of treatment. (Early stage means it is not outside your breast and nearby lymph nodes.) The goal is to keep your cancer from coming back. Chemotherapy may reduce the risk of cancer coming back by 30 to 50 percent.
If cancer has spread beyond your breast to distant parts of your body, physicians often recommend systemic therapies — which include chemotherapy, endocrine therapy and targeted therapies — without surgery. Systemic therapies travel throughout your body and fight cancer cells wherever they may be. The goal is to give you the longest, healthiest life. If your medicine stops working or the side effects are too difficult, you have other options. The next step is to look at switching to another medicine.
Most people with breast cancer have hormone receptor-positive (HR+) disease. This means the breast cancer cells have receptors where the hormones estrogen or progesterone can attach. These hormones help the cancer cells multiply quickly.
Endocrine therapy helps control HR+ breast cancer in two ways. One is that it reduces or blocks the body’s production of hormones. The other is that it reduces or blocks the effects of the hormones. This form of treatment is also called hormonal therapy.
For patients with early-stage HR+ breast cancer, endocrine therapies reduce the risk that the same cancer will come back. They may also lower the chance of getting a new breast cancer.
If HR+ breast cancer is in distant parts of your body, endocrine therapies can help you live longer. They can be effective against tumors for a long time.
Targeted therapies work in one of these ways:
Sometimes, targeted therapies are a pill that you take at home. Or they can be given by infusion in repeating cycles. They can be used alone or with other treatments. Some can improve the effects of endocrine therapy and are only used along with endocrine therapy.
There are many options for both early-stage and advanced or metastatic breast cancer.
Several therapies target breast cancer that is HER2-positive. This means the cancer cells make too much of a protein called HER2/neu. HER-targeted therapies may be given alone or with chemotherapy or another targeted therapy. They include:
Cell-cycle inhibitors are an option for advanced or metastatic breast cancer that is HR+ and HER2-negative. HR+ means the cancer cells have places where hormones can attach. These medicines block proteins in the life cycle of cancer cells. They help stop the growth and spread of breast tumors. Examples include CDK4/6 inhibitors, such as palbociclib, ribociclib or abemaciclib. If cancer cells have changes in the gene PIK3CA, a targeted medication called alpelisib may be recommended.
Everolimus is an mTOR inhibitor. It targets a protein that allows breast cancer cells to grow out of control. Everolimus is sometimes used for patients who are past menopause with advanced cancer that is HR+ and HER2-negative.
All of these can be used along with endocrine therapy.
Patients with BRCA gene changes may benefit from therapy with PARP inhibitors. These medicines help kill cancer cells by making DNA repair harder for them. Cells that cannot repair their DNA are more likely to be killed by other treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation. PARP inhibitors include olaparib and talazoparib.
A healthy immune system attacks bacteria, viruses and sometimes harmful cells, like cancer cells. It leaves harmless cells alone. Sometimes, cancer cells survive by sending false signals that make them look harmless, which tricks the immune system.
Medicines called immune checkpoint inhibitors block these false signals. This allows your natural defenses to work better. Immune checkpoint inhibitors are now approved for some patients with triple-negative breast cancer (and many other types of solid tumors).
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has been a leader in developing cellular immunotherapy. With this treatment, a patient’s own immune cells (lymphocytes) are genetically changed in a laboratory to attack certain proteins on cancer cells. Examples of cellular immunotherapy include chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR T-cell therapy) and T-cell receptor (TCR) therapy. These therapies, while promising, have not been approved for breast cancer yet. Patients may choose to join clinical trials testing these new approaches.
The options for breast cancer include:
Learn more about Immunotherapy