Although breast cancer remains the second commonest cancer in adult females worldwide, the survival rates have improved by almost 50% in the past 25 years. This is mostly as a result of the huge amount of time and resources that have been invested in research till date, amounting to better education, more effective screening methods with early detection, and more advanced treatment modalities. Breast cancer is starting to be perceived less as a death sentence and more as a chronic illness.
Image source: Healthline
Here are a few good-to-know statistics:
- Over 2 million new cases of breast cancer have been diagnosed in 2018 with the highest rates in Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, France, Lebanon, Australia, United Kingdom, Italy, and New Zealand.
- The average 5-year survival rate for breast cancer is about 99% if the cancer is confined to the breast tissue, and 27% if cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
- Currently, there are over 3.5 million survivors of breast cancer in the United States.
- The number of invasive breast cancer cases are slightly higher in black women, compared to white women.
Image source: Healthline
In this article, we’ll briefly explore 5 of the recent advancements in breast cancer research and treatments which have or will contribute to the rising survival rates.
Pre-pectoral refers to placing implants directly beneath the skin (instead of beneath the muscle) during breast reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy for breast cancer. It adopts a minimal approach to breast reconstructive surgery with better cosmetic outcomes for the patient. “Its main advantages are that it avoids animation deformity, prevents shoulder dysfunction, and has a lower incidence of capsular contracture.”
Image source: Oren Z. Lerman MD
The human epidermal breast cancer receptor (HER-2) is one of the receptors targeted when treating breast cancers. But just like it is with many medications, resistance is an issue. Following clinical trials, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of two HER-2 blocking medications (instead of one) as part of the chemotherapy for the treatment of breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. This has proven to be more effective in treating breast cancer compared to what was originally used.
Image source: About Cancer
Previously, it was believed that all axillary lymph nodes have to be removed during sentinel node dissection as a precautionary measure to prevent cancer spread even if the axillary nodes are not palpable and cancer has not spread. A study found that axillary node dissection can be avoided if need be as there was no significant difference in the 10-year survival rate compared to when the axillary surgery is performed. Axillary lymph node dissection comes with its own risk including lymphedema, axillary web syndrome, and numbness of the affected arm, which is very unpleasant.
Image source: JAMA Network
Genomic risk assessment scoring to personalize therapy and avoid unnecessary chemotherapy
One major area breast cancer research has been focusing on is personalizing treatment to ensure patient only gets exactly what patient needs. How does this work you ask? It works by accumulating genomic information using 21-gene assay (Oncotype Dx) or 70-gene assay (Mammaprint), in combination with the patient’s clinical situation and pathological results. This information is cumulated and used to come up with a score that suggests whether the patient will need adjuvant chemotherapy. The aim is to reduce the administration of chemotherapy in patients who really don’t need it.
Image source: OncoLink
Image source: Labiotech shows how Mammaprint was developed
This is worth mentioning because it is an area in cancer therapy that has been continually improving, not just for breast cancer but also for bladder and lung cancers. With immunotherapy, instead of targeting the tumor cells directly, treatment stimulates the immune system to attack them. The FDA has approved a good number of new medications in recent years and there are still a good few currently undergoing trials. It has proven to have various advantages over traditional chemotherapy. Its effects are promising and I honestly can’t wait to see what more it has in stock! Interestingly enough, according to a study published in the Nature journal recently, a patient with breast cancer recorded full regression of cancer after treatment with a form of immunotherapy called Advanced cell transfer (ACT). The patient did not respond to chemotherapy or hormonal therapy previously.
What to look forward to…
The future for breast cancer treatment is looking good. Studies are underway with the aim of creating vaccines to prevent breast cancer and its spread. There’s also a lot going on in the immunotherapy side of things, a good number of medications in the clinical trial phase and so much more.
Image source: Moffitt Cancer Centre
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Dr. Wendy Evans-Uhegbu is a graduate of The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, with experience in Connected Health, Medical Technology, Clinical Research, Medical Education, and Web Design. She is a member of the Medics Abroad team with the role of Chief Communications Officer. She also runs a Medical Communications, Book Writing, and Publishing business, and is the author of the newly published children’s book series “The Things Around Me”.