By Dr. Lisa Phuong, Breast Medical Oncology, Nuvance Health
Medical oncology provides patients with systemic treatment options for breast and other types of cancer.
Unlike surgery or radiation therapy, systemic treatment targets the entire body. Examples of systemic therapy are chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and immunotherapy. Medical oncologists are trained to provide safe and effective systemic therapy. Medical oncologists also manage treatment-related side effects and disease symptoms.
Here is what you need to know about medical oncology if you have been diagnosed with breast cancer:
How is medical oncology involved in breast cancer treatment?
Optimal breast cancer management is complex, specialized and requires a multidisciplinary approach from many specialists, including medical oncology, radiation oncology, surgery, pathology, radiology, genetic counseling, nurses and more. These specialists collaborate to review each patient’s case to develop a treatment strategy that follows evidence-based guidelines and considers the patient’s individual needs.
When is medical oncology recommended?
It is important for any patient with breast cancer to see a medical oncologist. A lot of patients may think they do not need additional treatment after the breast tumor is surgically removed. However, medical oncology plays an important role in reducing the chance of the cancer coming back. Medical oncology is also a crucial component for patients who have breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.
Medical oncologists also help patients understand details about their cancer, including the stage, size of the tumor and type. These details determine the type of treatment we recommend. With advances in personalized medicine, we can now study the tumor type and target treatments based on the tumor’s genomic makeup.
Medical oncologists also help plan long-term treatment and future screening recommendations. Most patients with breast cancer may stay on oral medication for five years or more after active treatment ends.
What are the different types of medical oncology?
The standard treatments for breast cancer include chemotherapy, hormone therapy and immunotherapy:
- Chemotherapy is a group of drugs that destroy abnormal cells. Chemotherapy is administered intravenously, by injection or by an oral medication. Learn more about chemotherapy.
- Hormone therapy is recommended for patients with a type of breast cancer that is affected by hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone. This cancer type is called hormone-receptor positive breast cancer. Treatments that stop these hormones from feeding the breast cancer are called hormone or endocrine therapy; they are administered by injection or an oral medication.
- Immunotherapy is an advanced treatment that helps the immune system recognize and attack cancer cells. Immunotherapy may be recommended for patients with difficult-to-treat cancer that does not respond to standard treatments. Immunotherapy is administered intravenously, by injection or by oral medication such as a pill. Learn more about immunotherapy.
What is the role of clinical trials for breast cancer?
Clinical trials are essential to improving the standards of care for breast cancer. Everyone should know that current standard treatments are the result of clinical trials. Learn more about clinical trials.
For patients with metastatic breast cancer or cancer that is not responding to standard-of-care treatment, clinical trials may provide access to an investigational drug.
What are the top concerns or questions patients have about medical oncology?
Many breast cancer patients are concerned about side effects. There have been advancements to decrease side effects from chemotherapy, including ways to manage nausea, cold cap therapy to help patients keep their hair, and integrative medicine such as acupuncture, meditation and yoga.
Further, there are now different options for treatments. We encourage our patients to let us know if they are having a difficult time with side effects because there may be another treatment option that is still effective.
What are the top concerns patients have after completing active treatment for breast cancer?
Many breast cancer patients worry about the cancer coming back. There is always a risk of recurrence, even after a patient has gone through treatment to cure the cancer.
However, the risk of recurrence is usually low. In general, the more time that passes, the lower the risk of recurrence. It is important to follow recommendations for routine follow up care, surveillance imaging and tests.
What are a few of the greatest medical oncology advancements patients should know about?
Systemic treatment options are rapidly evolving. Advances in personalized medicine and targeted therapies have resulted in people with breast cancer living longer and maintaining their quality of life.
Through personalized medicine — also called precision medicine — we can identify effective treatments, and avoid treatments that will not be effective, based on the genetic makeup of the tumor.
Another great achievement in breast cancer treatment is identifying patients who may not need chemotherapy depending on the tumor’s biology. If the type of cancer they have is low-risk for recurrence, we may be able to avoid chemotherapy. On the other hand, if the cancer is high-risk for recurrence, we can make informed decisions about treatments to address that risk.
The bottom line: Breast cancer care is a team effort. Rest assured your team at Nuvance Health is knowledgeable, skilled and cares about you. You are never alone and will always be supported. Additionally, Nuvance Health offers access to some of the latest treatments and clinical trials for breast cancer.