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A Crash Course in Common Terms Heard During Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

Your breast cancer treatment will include a crash course in medical terminology. You may have heard some of these terms before while others will be completely new to you. Feeling comfortable and confident during this difficult time requires you to know exactly what’s going on with your body and your treatment plan.

Here is an overview of what to expect during treatment, along with definitions of the common terms.

An Overview of Breast Cancer Treatment

After the biopsy, your surgeon should have a good idea of the type of treatment you will need.

“Treatment follows a two-pronged approach,” said James T. Moore, MD, senior surgeon, Breast Cancer at Abington - Jefferson Health. “First we treat the whole breast to gain local control over the cancer, [either] through a mastectomy with reconstruction, or a lumpectomy with radiation.”

If you have a lumpectomy or mastectomy, your surgeon may remove lymph nodes from under your arm at the same time. Many women have more discomfort under their arm than with the breast itself, since there can be some sensory changes afterward, such as pain and a burning sensation down the arm.

The second treatment option depends on the type of tumor you have and whether or not your lymph nodes are involved. If they are, chemotherapy may be an appropriate treatment option. Regardless of the type of treatment you receive, you will have a strong support network available.

“Every patient we see is assigned to our nurse navigator,” said Dr. Moore. “The navigator’s job is to help the patient throughout the treatment process by setting up the necessary appointments and providing access to the resources a woman will need along the way. Their goal is to decrease their anxiety and speed up the process.”

Should you get a second opinion when you’re told you have breast cancer? Dr. Moore advises that second opinions can be important, especially in more complicated cases, and he recommends them when he feels they are needed. In cases where the course of treatment is clear cut, he’ll recommend moving forward with treatment as quickly as possible.

Terms You’ll Hear Frequently During Treatment

The following list but covers many of the terms you will hear in the first days and weeks after your breast cancer diagnosis.

  • Biopsy: Removing a small amount of tissue for examination
  • Chemotherapy: Treatment that uses chemical substances to kill harmful cancer cells
  • CT scan: Also called a CAT scan, used to take detailed pictures of the breast
  • Local control: Treatment to stop the growth of breast cancer at the point of origin
  • Lumpectomy: Removing a lump from the breast, typically when the cancer has not spread
  • Mastectomy and double mastectomy: Surgery to remove the breast or breasts
  • Reconstruction: Restoring the shape of the breast after a mastectomy
  • Radiation: Using intense beams of energy (X-rays or protons) to kill cancer cells
  • Tumor: An abnormal growth of tissue that can be benign (not harmful) or malignant (cancer)
  • Ultrasound: A scan that uses high frequency sound waves to produce an image.

“Breast cancer treatment has evolved and improved so much over the last several decades. Women should feel positive and hopeful about their prognosis,” said Dr. Moore. “Thirty years ago the standard of treatment was to perform a mastectomy if a biopsy showed cancer. Now, we are much more conservative and have better results with a combination of lumpectomy and radiation.”

Page last reviewed: October 4, 2017
Page last updated: October 4, 2017

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