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Breast Cancer Treatment: 12 Things Oncologists Wish Patients Knew

About one in eight U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. Here are the top things oncologists wish their patients knew about breast cancer treatment.

You should never listen to waiting room chatter

Swapping stories can be comforting when you’re anxiously waiting to have a big talk with your doctor, but you should forget about your new friend’s treatment experience as soon as you enter the exam room. “I always talk to my patients about waiting room conversation; one person could be having a horrible experience and it puts ideas in your head,” says Diana Lake, MD, a medical oncologist specializing in breast cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “Everybody is different, everyone isn’t receiving the same medication, and you may not even have the same stage disease.” If you find yourself in that scenario, have an honest conversation with your physician about how you’re feeling and what your personal options are. “This is so important to help you stay grounded,” she says. You also want to be sure to ignore these 15 breast cancer myths.

African American doctor with a patientistock/shironosov

Your doctor wants you to get a second opinion

“Patients think they can’t go for second opinions or their doctor will be angry with them, but we actually encourage second opinions,” says Dr. Lake. “It’s all about the patient; what can we do to facilitate your education about your disease and treatment options?” Here are signs you can’t trust the health advice you found on the web. 

chemotherapy patient in bediStock/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

You won’t necessarily have to shave your head

Chemotherapy can sometimes make you lose your hair, but not all the time. The type of chemo drug and dosage can cause everything from a mere thinning to full hair loss; it also plays a factor in whether you’ll lose from your scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, or pubic area. Take a look at 11 of the best foods to eat during chemotherapy.

woman pressing her hands togetheriStock/Halfpoint

You shouldn’t rely on prayer over drugs

“Some people think that prayer is going to cure them, in spite of the seriousness of their disease,” says Dr. Lake. “You can’t change their beliefs, and yes there’s a role for prayer, but medical treatment is necessary.” No matter what your religious beliefs are, try to be open-minded to the treatment options your oncologist lays out.

woman doctor talking to patientiStock/monkeybusinessimages

You shouldn’t attend appointments alone

Cancer is a very personal disease, but it’s important to let your loved ones in on the journey, says Dr. Lake. “A close loved one should be there for a patient’s initial consultation and when treatment decisions are being made,” she says. Not only will this give you a shoulder to lean on or hand to squeeze when hearing tough news, it also allows your support system to fully understand what to expect and what the side effects may be. Here’s how you can support a patient during chemotherapy.

woman administering a shot in her abdomeniStock/dolgachov

Don’t assume chemo is your only option

For years, chemotherapy drugs were standard treatment for breast cancer and are delivered intravenously or orally; they work by attacking rapidly growing cancer cells. Unfortunately, these meds also target cells all over the body, which can cause uncomfortable side effects like nausea. But these medications are no longer the only option. Hormone therapy and targeted therapy is also an option in certain cases. “In today’s era, fewer breast cancer patients are receiving chemo. We have newer treatments that could be less toxic,” says Dr. Lake. “We do care about the quality of life patients have, so we no longer consider just treating the tumor, we look at the patient as a whole.” Hormone therapy might be an option for patients with a type of breast cancer that is affected by hormones in the blood. Targeted therapy drugs are designed to block the growth and spread of cancer cells. Eat more of these healthy foods that lower your risk of breast cancer. 

elderly couple embracingiStock/franckreporter

Don’t think of cancer as “the c-word”

Open communication is one thing Pamela Munster, MD, a medical oncologist at UCSF Medical Center in California, says helped her most when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “Awkwardness doesn’t happen because people don’t love you; people just do not know how to talk about cancer,” she told the Avon Foundation. She said what helped her most was when loved ones asked her outright how she was feeling or if she wanted to talk. Check out what 15 cancer doctors do to avoid getting cancer.

older breast cancer patient with younger womaniStock/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Your family history only tells half the story

If your mom, grandmother, or aunt had breast cancer before you, don’t assume your experience will automatically be the same. Try your hardest to approach your own cancer battle with a clean slate. “Patients sometimes come in and say they wont accept a therapy because they had a relative who received it and had a bad experience or died,” says Dr. Lake. “Treatments are evolving and it’s very important for patients to understand every case is different.”

male doctor discussing diagnosis with female patientiStock/PeopleImages

The more questions, the better

“It’s so important for patients to understand this is a partnership between you and your physician,” says Dr. Lake. “Ask lots of questions, come with questions written down, and if you’re anxious bring someone along who can assist in that regard.” That back and forth makes for a more educational and meaningful session, she says. Here are questions you should be asking your doctor at your appointments. 

elderly patient with familyiStock/dolgachov

Your support system should do more than just hold your hand

A good support system is family and friends who not only lift your spirits when you need it most, but really understand what’s going on. “It’s more than going with you to the clinic. Your support should take an active role in your treatment and recovery,” says Dr. Lake. That means learning about potential side effects and helping to explore adjunct services to go along with treatment, such as acupuncture or support groups.

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You can treat your side effects

These days, there’s treatment for your treatment. “Years ago, patients would walk around constantly throwing up from chemo, but that phenomenon doesn’t happen anymore,” says Dr. Lake. Even if your medication makes you feel nauseous, there are excellent anti-nausea drugs your doctor can prescribe to combat it and help you feel more comfortable. Here’s why you always seem to get sick on vacation. 

middle-aged woman on a computeristock/Portra

You should think like a doctor

After a breast cancer diagnosis, the first thing you should do is learn everything you can. “Patients need to really educate themselves so they can understand the biology of their disease,” says Dr. Lake. “They need to know what’s going on with their body.” Understanding the type of tumor and what it’s doing inside you can make treatment decisions easier because you’ll know what questions to ask and what each choice means. Also: Be sure to learn the 8 signs of breast cancer you might ignore.

  • Diana Lake, MD, a medical oncologist specializing in breast cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
  • Pamela Munster, MD, a medical oncologist at UCSF Medical Center in California.
Medically reviewed by Tia Jackson-Bey, MD, on October 22, 2019

Alyssa Jung
Alyssa Jung is a writer and editor with extensive experience creating health and wellness content that resonates with readers. She freelanced for local publications in Upstate New York and spent three years as a newspaper reporter before moving to New York City to pursue a career in magazines. She is currently Senior Associate Editor at Prevention magazine and a contributor to Previously she worked at Reader's Digest as an editor, writer, and health fact checker.