One of the most frightening diagnoses a woman can receive is that of breast cancer-not only because of the grave medical implications, but also because of the potential to lose all or part of her breasts. However, thanks to heightened public awareness and numerous breakthroughs over the past few decades, breast cancer is often survivable, and even if a mastectomy is necessary, plastic surgery can often correct irregularities or scars. Here are the five primary therapies that may be available to you if you're among the one in eight U.S. women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime.

Treatment Options

1. Chemotherapy

Administered in cycles orally or intravenously, anti-cancer drugs such as cyclophosphamide and methotrexate reduce tumors by preventing cell division. When the cancer is in stages II or III, chemotherapy is often used to reduce the size of the tumor before surgical and radiation treatments are undertaken. Following surgery, chemotherapy can ensure that any remaining cancer cells are destroyed. For stage IV tumors, chemotherapy may be combined with hormone and/or biological therapy. Since chemotherapy targets fast-dividing cells, the cells involved in hair growth and the lining of the stomach are also adversely affected, often leading to hair loss, nausea, and decreased appetite. Other side effects may include fatigue and a greater susceptibility to infection, though there are several new treatments available designed to combat chemotherapy's negative impacts on the body.

2. Biological Therapy

If tests show that a tumor has an abundance of HER2, a receptor that when overexpressed can produce a recurrent or aggressive malignancy, then a biological agent like trastuzumab may be a particularly effective tool against the cancer. The biological agent, often combined with chemotherapy, attaches itself to HER2 and increases the manufacture of a protein that halts cell creation. Fever and chills, as well as weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, and rashes, are common side effects. Trastuzumab may also lead to heart and lung problems.

3. Hormone Therapy

Used on tumors that exhibit a significant presence of hormone receptors, aromatase inhibitors like tamoxifen block the production of estrogen, which feeds such tumors. Tamoxifen's side effects are much like those experienced during menopause, and since tamoxifen can be harmful to a developing fetus, it's important to explore birth-control options with your doctor before beginning this medication. Another form of hormone therapy for women who have not reached menopause is the removal of the ovaries, which are the body's main supplier of estrogen.

4. Surgery

Factors such as the stage the cancer has reached and the size of your tumor will determine the degree of surgery you'll need. Breast-sparing surgery, as the name suggests, is designed to preserve the breast; if small enough, then the tumor, the tissue surrounding it, and possibly one or two lymph nodes are removed. With larger tumors and ones that cannot be reduced by chemotherapy or radiation therapy, surgeons will perform either a total mastectomy, in which the entire breast and some lymph nodes are excised, or a modified radical mastectomy, in which the breast and most or all of the lymph nodes are extracted. If you wish, you may be able to undergo reconstructive plastic surgery immediately after a mastectomy. Following surgery, you will most likely need to safeguard the arm that lies on your treated side by avoiding tight clothing, heavy handbags, or overexposure to the sun.

5. Radiation Therapy

Applied either externally by a machine emitting high-energy rays into the breast tissue or internally through a thin plastic tube containing a radioactive element that's implanted in the breast, radiation therapy is often used after breast-sparing surgery or mastectomy to destroy any remaining cancer cells. External radiation requires frequent visits to a hospital or a clinic over the course of many weeks, while internal radiation calls for a hospital stay of several days. Both treatments can cause the skin surrounding the targeted area to become itchy, red, and tender; radiation can also induce feelings of fatigue.

Exploring Your Options
It's important to consult an oncologist specializing in breast cancer in order to decide which combination of these therapies is best for you. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer that has not spread to the lymph nodes or chest wall is 95 percent; if it has spread, the chances of surviving still remain high at 80 percent. You can further the likelihood of becoming and remaining cancer-free if you are able to catch the tumor in its early stage. So if you're over 40 or have a history of breast cancer in your family, be sure to schedule a mammogram once a year.