Conventional Treatment For Breast Cancer

By conventional treatment we mean treatment recommended and carried out by doctors and hospitals as part of the standard cancer journey.  It may also be called ‘regular’, ‘Western’ or ‘mainstream’ treatment. On some websites and literature it is called ‘traditional’ treatment: this is confusing because for indigenous people traditional healing includes natural medicines, rituals, diet, relationship to the land and spirituality developed over thousands of years.  We have a separate page on Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Treatment.


Everyone’s breast cancer is unique and the treatment in each case will depend on many things including:

  • The type of cancer,
  • The stage of the cancer,
  • Exactly where the cancer is in your body,
  • Your age, general health and lifestyle,
  • Your own wishes.

When your breast cancer is confirmed you will meet with medical specialists, probably a surgeon and oncologist to work out a treatment plan.

Unless you have a very simple, non-invasive cancer at stage 0, you will probably need to have more than one type of treatment, for example surgery followed by chemotherapy.

As in other pages on this website, we give basic facts here about the various kinds of treatment, and link you to other websites for more detailed information.

Breast Cancer Society of Canada has a single page on treatment generally

Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation has a short introduction to treatment on one page and individual pages with more detailed information about each kind of treatment.

Willow also has a good introduction to breast cancer treatments and then links to more detail.

BREASTCANCER.ORG has a great deal of information on different treatments, including side effects, set out in a way that is easy to understand and helpful. BUT because it is American it also has information that is not relevant to Canadians, especially about things like paying for treatment and where it takes place. Also drugs may be called something different in the USA.

Most treatments have side effects, which means the treatment itself (and not the cancer) can cause unusual or unpleasant effects. We have a separate page on side effects.

This is where the cancer growth is physically removed and it generally means one or more of the following operations:

Lumpectomy (also called breast conserving surgery) – only the tumour and the tissue around it are removed.

Mastectomy – the whole breast is removed. Lymph node removal – some of the lymph nodes are removed, both to check if the cancer has spread and remove any that are cancerous.

Reconstruction – this operation creates a new breast. This may happen at the same time as a mastectomy, or later.

Deciding on what type of surgery is right for you is a decision to be made between you, your surgeon, your oncologist and perhaps also your family.   These can be very hard decisions to make so having as much information as possible and the chance to ask questions is very important.

Surgery Type Booklet DownloadDownload our booklet on breast cancer surgery.


The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation website has information about surgery here. This includes information on what will happen when you go for your operation and how to prepare for surgery.

BREASTCANCER.ORG also has lots of useful information about surgery here. But once again, be careful because it is American, so not everything it says applies to Canada.

Willow has a very helpful page on breast reconstruction. If you think you may want this, you need to discuss it with your medical team as soon as early as possible.

Radiation Treatment (Radiotherapy)
This is often used after surgery to make sure any remaining cancer cells are destroyed and to reduce the risk of the cancer recurring (coming back).

A high energy beam is directed at the cancer site. This usually has to be done on several days a week for up to seven weeks.

There is no equipment for radiation in the NWT so patients must travel to Edmonton for this treatment.

Radiation treatment does have some side effects which build up over the period of the treatment.  Click here for our page on side effects.

Although normally women live at home and visit the hospital daily for their radiation treatment, this is not possible for women from NWT who may have to stay in Edmonton for weeks in order to have radiation treatment. (See our page on Medical Travel for more information on staying in Edmonton.)

Click here for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation page on radiation treatment and here for BREASTCANCER.ORG

Powerful drugs are used, usually after surgery, to kill any remaining cancer cells and reduce the chance the cancer will recur.  For metastatic cancer, chemotherapy is used to shrink the cancer or slow its growth.

The drugs are mostly applied intravenously which means directly into your blood through a needle in a vein.  It can take several hours for each drug treatment this way and it needs to be given in a hospital.

A course of chemotherapy is typically one treatment every 2, 3 or 4 weeks, spread over 3 – 6 months.

Some chemotherapy is taken by tablets and this can be done at home.

Chemotherapy drugs are carefully calculated for each patient, taking into account the patient’s health, and the type and stage of cancer.

Chemotherapy affects the whole body, not just the cancer cells and side effects can be severe. For many women the most dramatic, and difficult, side effect of chemotherapy is losing their hair.  Click here for our page on side effects.

You will have to travel to Yellowknife or Edmonton for chemotherapy given intravenously.

CHEMOREADY.CA is a Canadian website all about chemotherapy.

More details about chemotherapy can also be found on the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation website and on BREASTCANCER.ORG

Other Drug Therapies for Breast Cancer

Increasingly drugs are being developed that attack specific cancer cells or stop cancer cells from growing.  There are two main types of treatment and it depends on the type of breast cancer whether they might be recommended for you.

Targeted Therapy (Herceptin)

Around 20- 25% of breast cancers are what is known as HER2 positive.  This type of cancer can be treated with drugs directly aimed at the cancer.  The most common of these drugs is called Herceptin (although it is not the only one).

The advantage of targeted therapy is that it attacks just the cancer cells and so generally has less severe side effects than chemotherapy.

Herceptin is given intravenously, usually every three weeks.  It is sometimes given with chemotherapy. How often you need it and for how long will depend on the stage of the cancer.

Visit the Willow website for more information.

Hormone Therapy

About 70% of breast cancers are fuelled by a type of chemical produced naturally by the body, known as the hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Hormone therapy works to slow down the production of these hormones and / or stop them stimulating cancer cells.

The most common hormone therapy is a drug called tamoxifen.

If prescribed, it is usually taken for at least five years after other treatments, to prevent the cancer recurring.

Hormone therapy may even be taken to prevent breast cancer in women who are at high risk of a particular type of cancer, even if they do not have cancer.

Visit the Willow website for more information on hormone therapy.

Hormone and other drug therapies do not have such a dramatic effect on the body as chemotherapy, but they can have quite serious side effects.