Conventional cancer treatment(s) are the treatments recommended and carried out by doctors and hospitals as part of standard cancer care. It may also be called “regular”, “Western” or “mainstream” treatment. On some websites and literature it is called “traditional” treatment; this can be confusing for Indigenous people whose traditional healing includes natural medicines, rituals, diet, relationship to the land and spirituality developed over thousands of years.
If you choose to use traditional or complementary treatments, it is IMPORTANT you speak to your medical doctors first. Sometimes conventional medicines may have bad reactions with other kinds of treatments.
Everyone’s breast cancer is unique and the treatment in each case will depend on many things including:
- type of cancer,
- stage of the cancer,
- location of the cancer 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/or 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.
- ReThink Breast Cancer is a resource for young women diagnosed with cancer.
- Canadian Breast Cancer Network has a great deal of information on different treatments, including side effects, set out in a way that is easy to understand and helpful.
This is where the cancer growth is physically removed and it generally means one or more of the following operations:
Lumpectomy – only the tumor and the tissue around it are removed. This type of surgery is also called breast-conserving surgery.
Mastectomy – is a surgery that removes the whole breast, or both breasts.
Lymph Node Surgery – removal of lymph nodes from the armpit is done to test whether they contain cancer. This surgery is performed at the same time as a mastectomy or after a lumpectomy. The doctors will use the results of the lymph node surgery to determine treatment options. There are two types of nodes: Sentinel and Auxillary.
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.
The Canadian Breast Cancer Network has information about surgery. This includes information on what will happen when you go for your operation and how to prepare for surgery.
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 coming back. Or it can be used to shrink a tumour prior to surgery, treat a recurrence of cancer or ease pain in the case of advanced cancer. 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. Radiation treatment does have some side effects which build up over the period of the treatment.
There is no equipment for radiation in the NWT, patients must travel to the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton for this treatment. Patients may also have to stay in Edmonton for the duration of their treatment.
For more detailed information of this treatment, check out the Canadian Cancer Society.
Powerful drugs are used, usually after surgery, to kill any remaining cancer cells and reduce the chance the cancer will recur. For cases of 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, 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, sometimes difficult, side effect of chemotherapy is losing hair on their head and other parts of their body like nose, eyebrows, etc.
You will have to travel to Yellowknife or Edmonton for chemotherapy treatments given intravenously.
For more on chemotherapy, see the Canadian Breast Cancer Network‘s information.
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 by your medical team.
Targeted Therapy (Herceptin)
Around 20- 25% of breast cancers are what is known as HER2 positive (HER2+). This type of cancer can be treated with drugs directly aimed at the cancer. The most common of these drugs is called Herceptin, but there are others available.
The advantage of targeted therapy is that it attacks just the cancer cells and generally has less severe side effects than chemotherapy. Herceptin is given intravenously, usually every three weeks. It is sometimes given with your chemotherapy treatment. How often you need it and for how long will depend on the stage of the cancer.
About 70% of breast cancer tumours are fueled 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 from stimulating the 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 cancer recurrence.
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.
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.
See the Canadian Breast Cancer Network‘s information on these drug treatments.
Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Treatments
Traditional, complementary and alternative treatment may also be called ‘therapy’ or ‘medicine’. These treatments are sometimes called ‘holistic’ because they don’t just look at how the disease affects the body, they aim to treat the whole person – emotionally, mentally and spiritually, as well as, physically.
Complementary Medicine/Therapy may be used alongside conventional treatment, often to help with the side effects of cancer treatments and to boost healing, recovery, and to help with overall healthiness. It is also used by those living with cancer and metastatic cancer to relieve symptoms of the disease.
Alternative Medicine/Therapy covers the same techniques as a complementary medicine and this expression is used when these therapies are used instead of conventional treatments.
Traditional Medicine uses the knowledge and practices developed by the Indigenous peoples of North America over thousands of years. It includes using natural plants with healing powers, as well as ceremonies such as smudging and sweats. Traditional medicine can be used as either a complementary or alternative treatment for cancer.
Always check with your medical team to ensure that these therapies do not cause harm or interfere with the treatments they have prescribed for you.
Examples of Complementary, Alternative and Traditional Medicine:
- Art Therapy
- Chinese Medicine
- Chaga Tea
- Tai Chi
The following websites have pages about complementary and alternative therapy for those with cancer:
What does conventional medicine have to say about these treatments?
Doctors tend to be cautious about complementary and alternative medicines and therapies because they have not been scientifically tested and proven like conventional cancer treatments.
Increasingly, conventional medicine practitioners agree that many complementary therapies are helpful for cancer patients, especially for dealing with side effects, emotional health, and for those living with cancer and for palliative (advanced cancer/end of life) care.
Conventional doctors will almost always strongly advise that these treatments should only be used as complementary to conventional treatment and NOT as an alternative, especially for early stage cancers.
However, many doctors do accept that for palliative care or cancer in a very advanced stage, conventional treatment may offer little or no benefit at a cost of severe side effects. In these circumstances, alternative medicines and therapies may help significantly.
If you do want to follow traditional healing or other complementary/alternative therapy it is ESSENTIAL that you discuss it with your doctor and healthcare workers first. This is because some therapies can react strongly with conventional medicines. For example, some chemotherapy drugs make you very dehydrated so it could be dangerous to go to a sweat lodge.
When choosing a complementary or alternative therapist, make sure it is someone who is properly trained and registered with an accredited body for that type of therapy. Make sure the therapist or healer knows the full details of the conventional treatment you are receiving for breast cancer.
Cost of Complementary, Alternative & Traditional Treatments
These treatments are generally not offered by the conventional Canadian public healthcare system as part of the cancer journey. If you have additional healthcare coverage, for example through your work, it might cover the cost of some treatments such as massage therapy. You need to check with the provider in advance whether they will pay for the therapy you would like.