What Will Happen if I Opt Out of Breast Cancer Treatment?

Dr. Harold Burstein answers: 'What Will Happen if I Don't Treat Breast Cancer?'

— -- Question: What will happen to me if I decide not to have any treatments for my breast cancer?

Answer: Well, the hope for women with early stage breast cancer is that by using surgery and radiation therapy and, where appropriate, chemotherapy and hormonal treatments, that we can help prevent the cancer from coming back. And each of those therapies has been studied in very well-controlled clinical studies and shown to be valuable for many women. So in terms of optimizing your chance of being alive five or ten years from now, we often encourage women to think about these very specific treatments.

Many of these treatments have side effects. Sometimes they are disfiguring; sometimes they make people fatigued or feel sick; sometimes they cause menopausal symptoms. And nobody likes the idea of getting medical treatment when they don't need it. So again, many of these decisions will be very individual and appropriate only for you and so you need to talk to your doctor.

Having said all that, there are compelling studies that show that most of these treatments help women live longer and so we often recommend them because we're trying to do everything we can to help you survive better. There's no guarantee that these treatments will prevent the cancer from coming back, but they represent the state of the art for medical knowledge right now and we do encourage them.

It's not really clear what happens if you do nothing for breast cancer. The best data we have for that goes back to the early 19th century when they didn't really have any effective treatments for breast cancer and many women at a hospital in London were followed. And if untreated, breast cancer universally becomes a fatal disease. It can happen over long periods of time, but if you don't have surgery and if you don't have other treatments, it doesn't go away on its own. That's why we recommend (to) people that they get appropriate medical treatment. We think we can do a lot better for women nowadays.

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