What You Need to Know About Breast Cancer: A Guide for Newly Diagnosed African American Women

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Learning you have breast cancer doesn't stop your life. As you start getting more information about your diagnosis, you will come to learn that there are many effective treatment options and many places you can turn to for help and hope.

Tips to Get You Started

Find a specialist. Doctors who specialize in treating cancer are called oncologists. It's important to get your medical care from an oncologist who specializes in treating breast cancer.

Work with a team. The best cancer centers have many different kinds of doctors and professionals who work together as a team – oncologists, surgeons, radiation oncologists, nurses, registered dietitians, social workers, and others. For a list of such cancer centers visit: http://cancercenters.cancer.gov.

Advocate for yourself. The members of your health care team are experts in treating cancer, but you are the expert on your own life. Speak up about your needs and concerns so you can get the best care possible.

Remember that you are not alone. There are many sources of support available to you, including your health care team, supportive family and friends, members of your faith or spiritual community, and others. There are also organizations, such as CancerCare, that are ready to help.

Ways Breast Cancer is Treated

Women with breast cancer have more treatment options than ever before. The right treatment for you will depend on your tumor type, its characteristics, your overall health, and your lifestyle. The following types of treatment are used for breast cancer:

SURGERY Most women with breast cancer will have surgery to remove their tumor. To try to prevent cancer from coming back, surgery may be combined with other types of treatment.

Types of surgery used to remove tumors include:

  • Lumpectomy – Removes only the tumor and a small amount of the tissue surrounding it. This kind of surgery is usually followed by radiation.

  • Mastectomy – Removes the entire breast that has the tumor. After a mastectomy, reconstructive surgery can rebuild your breast so it is about the same size and shape as it was before.

You may also have this surgery:

  • Sentinel lymph node biopsy – Checks to see if cancer has spread to other parts of the body by removing the first lymph node(s) cancer is likely to travel to.

CHEMOTHERAPY Chemotherapy refers to drugs that kill rapidly dividing cells. This type of treatment kills cancer cells, but harms some healthy cells as well, which can lead to various side effects.

TARGETED TREATMENTS These are newer drugs designed to kill only cancer cells, not healthy cells. They usually have different side effects than traditional chemotherapy.

HORMONAL THERAPY Some breast cancers grow in response to the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Hormonal treatments block these hormones or reduce their amount in the body.

RADIATION Radiation refers to the use of special high-energy beams to stop cancer cells from growing and multiplying.

Tips for Making Treatment Decisions

Get involved in your care. When your health care team recommends a treatment, make sure you understand why. Ask questions about anything you don't understand.

Find out more. Ask your doctor where you can get more information about your diagnosis or the treatment he or she is recommending.

Get a second opinion. To be sure you are aware of all your options, make an appointment with another oncologist to discuss treatment recommendations.

Get the details. Talk with your doctor about what you can expect from your treatment. Some questions you may want to ask include:

  • What is the recommended treatment?
  • How will it be given? Will I need to go to the doctor's office or hospital to get my treatment, or will I get medication I can take at home?
  • How often will I receive treatment, and for how long?
  • What are the possible benefits and risks of this treatment?
  • How much will my treatment cost?
  • If I have questions during my treatment and my doctor is not available, who can I ask? For example, is there a nurse, social worker, or other specialist available?

Tips for Looking and Feeling Your Best During Treatment

Follow your doctor's advice. Your medications and other treatments work best when you follow all your doctor's instructions carefully. Write down all instructions, or ask your doctor or nurse to write them down for you.

Keep a side effect journal. When you experience a side effect, write down the date and time it happens, how strong it is, and how it affects you or your daily activities. Take this journal with you on doctor's visits to share the information about your symptoms with your health care team.

Get the facts about reconstructive surgery. There are several different kinds of reconstructive surgeries. To find out about your options, speak with a board-certified plastic surgeon. To find out if a plastic surgeon is certified, visit www.plasticsurgery.org.

Learn about other options. If you decide not to have reconstructive surgery, consider a breast prosthesis. This is a form that fits in your bra to make your breasts look natural and balanced. If you expect to lose your hair during treatment, get a wig, scarf or turban beforehand.

Get support. Joining a support group for women with breast cancer gives you a chance to talk with others who understand what you are going through. Talking one-on-one with an oncology social worker gives you a safe place to talk about your concerns. CancerCare offers these services for free.

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