Today, women facing breast cancer have more treatment options than they did even a few years ago.
At Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) our breast cancer experts understand that every woman’s cancer is different, as are her genetics, lifestyle, and personal preferences. We work together as a team to design an individualized treatment plan specifically for you—using the most advanced therapies—and to surround you with the support you need.
A diagnosis of cancer can feel overwhelming. We have an experienced, compassionate team ready to help.
- Expertise at SCCA
- Radiation therapy
- Hormonal therapies
- Targeted biological therapies
- Clinical studies
- Next steps
Breast cancer expertise at SCCA
Breast cancer survival rates
Data collected from cancer centers across the country show that people who begin their breast cancer treatment at SCCA have higher survival rates on average than those who started treatment at other centers.
Everything you need is here
Our surgeons, radiation oncologists and medical oncologists are UW Medicine doctors who specialize exclusively in breast cancer and have extensive experience with every type, grade and stage of the disease. We have the most advanced diagnostic, treatment, recovery and support programs.
Breast cancer treatment tailored to you
To formulate your personal treatment plan, your team members meet in the same room to share their expertise. Based on your unique needs, we combine and carefully coordinate treatments — surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormonal therapies and targeted biological therapies — to achieve the best results for you, including if you have metastatic breast cancer.
Innovative breast cancer therapies
SCCA patients have access to advanced therapies being explored in clinical studies for breast cancer conducted here and at our founding organizations Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and UW Medicine.
Your personal team includes more than your breast cancer doctors. For medical and emotional support, we connect you with a range of experts — like nutritionists, physical therapists, social workers, chaplains and palliative care specialists who care for you alongside your oncology team.
Ongoing care and support
Nearly all breast cancer survivors can look forward to a long life after their treatment is complete. You’ll receive follow-up care to monitor your healing, watch for signs of possible recurrence and enhance your well-being through our Women’s Wellness Clinic.
Surgery for breast cancer
Nearly all women with breast cancer have surgery as part of their cancer treatment.
Surgery for SCCA patients is performed by UW Medicine breast surgeons who are fellowship-trained in breast surgery/surgical oncology. They perform breast surgeries exclusively, and they partner with UW Medicine breast reconstructive surgeons for patients who want reconstruction.
Your first step toward surgery is to meet with your breast surgeon, who will carefully review your imaging and biopsy results, evaluate your health needs, ask about your personal preferences and explain your options, the type of surgery we recommend for you and what to expect.
- If you have ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), you may be able to have a lumpectomy, depending on the size of the cancer and whether the surgeon can get cancer-free margins (called negative margins). The margins are important in ensuring that no cancer is left behind. Some women with a large area of DCIS need a mastectomy.
- If you have invasive breast cancer, you may be able to have a lumpectomy, or you may need a mastectomy. The decision depends in part on the size of the tumor compared to the size of your breast and whether the cancer is in more than one segment of your breast.
The goal of a lumpectomy is to remove your tumor completely while leaving as much of your healthy breast tissue as possible — an approach called breast-conserving surgery.
Some women who need a lump removed have surgery called donut mastopexy to remove their tumor with negative margins while preserving the shape and appearance of their breast.
If your cancer doesn’t form a lump that surgeons can feel, they need guidance to locate and remove exactly the right tissue.
At SCCA, we offer SAVI SCOUT Surgical Guidance System.
- Up to 30 days before your surgery, a breast radiologist uses ultrasound or other imaging to locate your tumor and insert a tiny infrared chip into it through a needle.
- During your surgery, your surgeon scans your breast with a small wand that emits a radar signal. The signal bounces back from the chip so your surgeon can precisely locate the tissue you need removed.
If SAVI SCOUT is not the best option for you, your surgeon may pinpoint your cancer using wire localization.
- On the morning of your surgery, a breast radiologist uses mammography or ultrasound to locate your cancer and insert a thin guide wire into your breast to mark the cancer.
- During your surgery, your surgeon uses the guide wire to tell which tissue to remove.
If a lumpectomy is not an option for you or if you would rather have all breast tissue removed to reduce your risk of cancer recurring in your breast, you may have a mastectomy. You might need a mastectomy if:
- You have certain types of breast cancer, such as inflammatory breast cancer.
- Your cancer has advanced and is quite large when it’s diagnosed.
- Your cancer is in more than one-quarter of your breast.
There are several choices for how the surgery can be done. Your surgeon will talk with you about which option they recommend for you and why.
- Total mastectomy — If you don’t want reconstruction at the time of your mastectomy, or if you can’t have reconstruction at the same time for health reasons, your surgeon removes all your breast tissue, your nipple and the first lymph nodes where your cancer might have spread. These nodes are checked for cancer during your surgery. If cancer is present, the surgeon removes more lymph nodes from under your arm.
- Skin-sparing mastectomy — If your cancer does not involve your skin and you want immediate breast reconstruction, your cancer surgeon makes an incision around your nipple and areola (the darker colored skin around your nipple), removes the nipple and areola, and removes your breast tissue through this small opening. Your reconstructive surgeon uses the same opening to insert tissue from your abdomen (DIEP flap) or a temporary expander (replaced later with an implant).
- Nipple-sparing mastectomy — This surgery requires a small incision under the fold of your breast or on the outer side of your breast, leaving the nipple and areola intact. It is an option if you are having a preventive, or prophylactic, mastectomy because you have genetic mutations that put you at high risk for breast cancer or you have a strong family history of breast cancer. It is also an option for many women with small, early-stage cancers that don’t involve the nipple or areola.
Sentinel lymph node biopsy
Your surgeon may remove some lymph nodes under your arm on the same side as your cancer to see if cancer has spread there.
The fewer lymph nodes you have removed, the lower your risk of side effects, such as lymphedema (swelling) in your arm or nerve injury. This is why SCCA performs sentinel lymph node biopsy whenever possible.
Your surgeon locates and removes only the first lymph nodes where your breast cancer might spread (the sentinel, or gatekeeper, nodes).
- If the nodes are cancer-free, you do not need any more removed.
- If the nodes contain cancer, you may need more removed (called axillary lymph node dissection).
Our experienced team of surgeons is led by David R. Byrd, MD, who pioneered sentinel node biopsy in the Pacific Northwest.
Preventing and treating lymphedema
Lymphedema is not common, but it is a possible complication. So after any lymph node surgery, we refer our patients to physical therapists (PTs) with expertise in preventing, detecting and managing lymphedema.
We have several resources for lymphedema treatment, including PTs who provide complete decongestive therapy and specialized reconstructive surgeons who offer advanced surgical treatments, such as lymph vessel reconnection surgery and lymph-node transfer.
- The Breast Cancer Surgery Patient Care Manual (PDF) is a general outline of what to expect from surgery.
- If you are considering breast reconstruction, read about procedures performed for SCCA patients by plastic surgeons at University of Washington Medical Center.
- See breast prosthesis resources from the American Cancer Society. Some women use a breast form before or instead of breast reconstruction.
Radiation therapy for breast cancer
Radiation therapy clears cancer cells that may be left behind in your breast, your chest wall, or the lymph nodes in your armpit, chest or neck after surgery.
The radiation oncologists on your SCCA team specialize in breast cancer treatment and have extensive experience with every type, grade and stage of the disease. We use state-of-the art equipment and technology to design and deliver treatment that gives you the best possible outcome.
- If you have a lumpectomy, having radiation therapy after surgery may mean you can keep more of your breast tissue while also significantly lowering the chance of cancer recurring in your breast.
- If you have a mastectomy, you may not need radiation therapy because all your breast tissue on the side of your cancer was removed. However, some women may be at higher risk for recurrence, so your team may recommend radiation therapy to reduce your risk.
External-beam radiation therapy
Most women with breast cancer receive external-beam radiation therapy to their whole breast. In this form of therapy, a machine generates radiation beams and aims them at your breast, where cancer cells might remain.
- You will likely have radiation therapy every day, Monday through Friday, for three to six weeks. Each treatment takes only a few minutes.
- Your radiation oncology team carefully designs and carries out a plan to precisely target the tissue that needs treatment while limiting the effects of radiation to the rest of your body.
- During each treatment, we use an advanced multicamera system to track your body position to within less than a millimeter and make sure you are lined up the right way for the radiation beam.
Accelerated partial breast irradiation
This is a safe option for some women with early-stage breast cancer who are having a lumpectomy.
- Only part of the breast receives radiation, using a device placed inside the breast.
- Maximum radiation reaches the tissue at high risk for cancer with less radiation to surrounding healthy tissues.
- Treatment is given twice a day for five days.
- SCCA participated in a national study comparing this approach with standard external-beam radiation therapy.
Learn more in our radiation oncology section.
Chemotherapy for breast cancer
Your SCCA medical oncologist specializes in breast cancer and has deep knowledge about the latest, most effective drug treatments for your type and stage of cancer, including chemotherapy, hormonal therapies and targeted therapies.
Chemotherapy after surgery
For breast cancer, most chemotherapy drugs are given in cycles by infusion into a vein. Some are taken by mouth in pill form. The standard approach is to have chemotherapy after surgery.
- If you have early-stage breast cancer (it is not outside your breast and nearby lymph nodes), you’ll typically have four to six cycles of chemo with the goals of eliminating your cancer and keeping it from coming back. Chemo may reduce your risk of a recurrence by 30 to 50 percent.
- If you have metastatic breast cancer (it has spread beyond your breast and nearby tissues), you’ll typically have ongoing chemo to give you the longest, healthiest possible life. If your chemo stops working or side effects are too troubling, the next step is to consider switching to a different drug that might be effective.
Chemotherapy before surgery
Your SCCA team may recommend chemotherapy to shrink your tumor before surgery if:
- Your tumor is too large to remove with surgery alone and still get a result that’s cosmetically acceptable to you.
- You have inflammatory breast cancer or another form of breast cancer that is aggressive or locally advanced (near your breast but involving other tissue, such as your skin or many lymph nodes).
- Shrinking the tumor might mean you can have a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy.
Another reason for chemotherapy before surgery is to see how sensitive your cancer is to the medicine, which may help your team design your individualized treatment plan.
Learn more about chemotherapy in our medical oncology section.
Hormonal therapies for breast cancer
Most women with breast cancer have hormone-receptor positive (HR+) disease. This means your cancer cells have receptors where hormones, like estrogen and progesterone, can attach. These hormones help the cancer cells multiply quickly.
Hormonal therapy, also called endocrine therapy, may prevent HR+ breast cancer or keep it from coming back by reducing or blocking the production or effects of hormones.
- If you have early-stage breast cancer, hormonal therapies may reduce the risk that the same cancer will come back or a new breast cancer will develop.
- If you have a metastatic recurrence (breast cancer returns in distant parts of your body), hormonal therapies may extend your life. They can be effective against tumors for a long time.
These medicines bind to estrogen receptors on cells in the breast tissue. This keeps estrogen from attaching there, and it shuts down the cancer cells’ ability to grow and divide. Options include:
- Selective estrogen-receptor modulators (SERMs), such as tamoxifen (Nolvadex), toremifene (Fareston) and raloxifene (Evista)
- Selective estrogen-receptor downregulators (SERDs), such as fulvestrant (Faslodex), which binds to estrogen receptors and also decreases the number and the shape of receptors, making it harder for cancer to thrive
Aromatase inhibitors, which decrease the amount of estrogen circulating in your body, are used in women who’ve gone through menopause. They include anastrozole (Arimidex), letrozole (Femara) and exemestane (Aromasin).
If you are premenopausal, your doctors might recommend medicine that stops your ovaries from making estrogen, such as leuprolide (Lupron) or goserelin (Zoladex).
Targeted biological therapies for breast cancer
Targeted therapies block the growth or spread of cancer cells through a specific pathway or receptor — rather than generally attacking all fast-growing cells the way conventional chemotherapy drugs do.
Target biological therapies use substances, like antibodies, that come from living organisms, or versions of these substances made in a laboratory.
Several targeted drugs are approved to treat breast cancer that is HER2 positive (the cancer cells make too much of a protein called HER2/neu). You might receive one of these alone or along with chemotherapy or another targeted therapy:
- Trastuzumab (Herceptin)
- Lapatinib (Tykerb)
- Pertuzumab (Perjeta)
- Ado-trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla)
Everolimus (Afinitor) targets a protein that can mutate in cancer cells, allowing them to grow out of control. The drug blocks, or inhibits, this mutated protein, known as mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin, or mechanistic target of rapamycin).
Your doctor may recommend everolimus along with the hormonal therapy exemestane if you are past menopause and have advanced cancer that is HER2 negative and HR+.
These drugs help stop the growth and spread of tumors by blocking one or more proteins involved in the life cycle of cancer cells.
For advanced breast cancer or metastatic disease that is HR+, your doctor may recommend palbociclib (Ibrance) or ribociclib (Kisqali). They may be used in combination with hormonal therapies.
These drugs help kill cancer cells by making DNA repair harder for them. Cells that can’t repair their DNA are more susceptible to other cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Several PARP inhibitors are approved to treat ovarian cancer, especially in women with inherited mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Studies show these drugs are also effective against breast cancer in women with BRCA1 and 2 mutations. PARP inhibitors are being studied in other women with breast cancer too.
Learn more about targeted therapies in our medical oncology section.
Clinical studies for breast cancer
For some people, taking part in a clinical study may be the best treatment choice. Access to clinical studies by researchers at SCCA and our founding organizations Fred Hutch and UW Medicine is one reason many patients come to SCCA.
- Our surgeons offer several innovative treatment approaches through clinical trials, such as a study to figure out if radiation therapy is as effective as surgery to treat cancer in lymph nodes under the arm. Radiation therapy carries a lower risk of lymphedema.
- SCCA participates in national clinical trials to study different radiation doses, schedules, and delivery methods; whether all women need radiation to their lymph nodes; and other ways to reduce side effects and improve results.
- Our medical oncologists lead clinical studies to find new, more effective breast cancer drugs and delivery methods with fewer side effects for every type and stage of breast cancer.