Cancer treatment and care has tremendously changed over the last few years. New technological advances, better awareness about the symptoms and early diagnosis has helped reduce breast cancer mortality. However, in spite of awareness about the disease and breakthroughs in treatment, there are still a lot of myths and misconceptions that most patients have around breast cancer treatment and care. With abundance of information available on the internet, it’s easy to get carried away and believe in unscientific information that can confuse the patient as well as their families.
In my experience of interacting with breast cancer patients, I have noticed that being overinformed as well as being under informed can lead to misconceptions about the course of the treatment. It’s good to know about the disease but it’s important not to make assumptions without any evidence. It’s best to take the advice of your Oncologist for the best course of treatment that will be suitable for the patient.
Below are a few common myths around breast cancer treatment
Cancer treatment is no longer about providing the exact same treatment for each patient. Oncologists are moving from a one size fits all approach and leaning towards a personalized and targeted approach to treating breast cancer. Aspects such as stage of the cancer, size of the tumour are crucial for deciding the course of treatment. For example, depending on the size of the tumour, a patient can decide whether to opt for Mastectomy (removal of the whole breast) or choose Lumpectomy (where only the lump is removed). Furthermore every patient does not get the same treatment, it depends on the subtype of cancer. For example, patients with HER2-receptor positive disease benefit from a drug called trastuzumab.
The moment a patient is diagnosed with breast cancer, one of the things they most worry about is chemotherapy. There are a lot of misconceptions around why and when an Oncologist recommends chemotherapy to a patient. When a patient is diagnosed with breast cancer, the first step in the course of the treatment is often removal of the tumour through surgery. Once this is done, doctors recommend chemotherapy on the basis of the risk of relapse. If they feel the risk is high, then they prescribe chemotherapy to prevent a relapse. Therefore, predicting the risk of relapse is essential in deciding whether a patient needs chemotherapy or not. With advances in technology, clinicians are now able to use Artificial intelligence based prognostic tests such as ‘CanAssist Breast’ to accurately predict whether a patient falls under high-risk category or low-risk. Low-risk patients can potentially avoid the toxic side effects of chemotherapy and the associated costs.
Lymphedema (swelling) of arm, numbness, difficulty moving arm/shoulders were some of the common side effects of breast cancer treatment. However, over the last decade, oncologists have been using techniques where only those lymph nodes affected by the cancer can be removed (sentinel lymph node biopsy) rather than all the nodes (axillary dissection). This new technique has led to a significant decrease in the incidence of swelling, difficulty in arm/shoulder movement and numbness.
Due to lack of awareness, a lot of patients tend to assume that biopsy or surgery can cause the cancer to spread. Due to this assumption, some patients even delay diagnosis and treatment. Biopsy is the first step towards confirming a diagnosis of cancer. It also gives the oncologist vital information on how to proceed with treatment. Sometimes they may decide to give chemotherapy or radiation before surgery, and sometimes they may proceed straight to surgery. Surgically removing the tumour is a crucial step and it helps in preventing it from further spreading.
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Alternative therapy or medicine refers to non-standard treatment used in place of standard treatment. Patients often end up spending a lot more money on alternative medicines than on actual treatment because of the lure of using their own body, own mind, or things that may be found in nature. However, some alternative treatments may end up interfering with how standard cancer treatment works. In fact, many alternative medicines suppress the bone marrow and damage the liver resulting in more side effects of cancer treatment including death in few patients.