Raising Awareness for Breast Cancer Treatments Can Save Lives

One in eight women in the U.S will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime, despite the millions of dollars raised for treatments (http://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/understand_bc/statistics). These are thousands of mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends affected by this disease each year. Progress is made when treatments beneficially impact how effectively the cancer is treated, as well as decrease the negative effects on the body’s healthy cells. There have been two prominent changes in traditional cancer treatments in recent years: targeted cancer treatments and intraoperative radiation therapy. Overall, new breast cancer treatments have led to progress for many patients. However, there are still many risks to these treatments, in addition to the many negative side effects of more traditional therapies. Awareness of treatments needs to be made a priority, as if people remain ignorant of treatments until they need them, progress in this area will not be as effective as it could be.

Targeted cancer treatments are drugs that block the growth and spread of the disease by interfering only with the specific molecules involved in the growth, progression, and spread of the cancer. While traditional treatment acts on all rapidly dividing body cells, both normal and cancerous, targeted therapies act only on the cancerous cells (http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/targeted-therapies/targeted-therapies-fact-sheet). These targeted treatments are increasingly being used in breast cancer treatments, and have drastically changed the way that HER2 positive patients are treated.

HER2 positive breast cancer is when proteins develop on the cancerous cells, making them less susceptible to traditional treatments. HER2 tests positive for a protein that promotes the growth of cancer cells, making this type of cancer more aggressive (http://www.mayoclinic.org/breast-cancer/expert-answers/faq-20058066). Ten years ago, most HER2 positive diagnoses were deadly. The recent introduction of the targeted drug Herceptin has led to HER2 positive breast cancer being treated with more positive outcomes.

My mom was diagnosed with stage 3 HER2 positive breast cancer in 2010. Her oncologist told her the cancer was treatable, but that 5 years earlier it would have been a different story; he called Herceptin a “miracle drug”. After undergoing a double mastectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy treatments that involved Carboplatin and Docetaxel (traditional chemotherapy drugs) as well as the targeted drug Herceptin, she has been cancer free for over 5 years. Although Herceptin did target the HER2 proteins, the necessary use of it with other chemo drugs caused healthy cells to be damaged. This resulted in adverse side effects such as hair loss, a weakened immune system, nausea, loss of appetite, and extraordinary fatigue. As in my mom’s case, targeted cancer drugs can not always be used alone as treatment. Many times, they are used in conjunction with traditional chemotherapy medicine, causing devastating side effects on a patient by destroying both cancerous and healthy cells (http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/targeted-therapies/targeted-therapies-fact-sheet). The development of targeted cancer treatments like Herceptin are have changed how difficult breast cancer diagnoses, like HER2 positive, are treated, but they have not yet achieved their purpose of saving healthy body cells.

In traditional radiation therapy, the entire section of the body around the tumor is affected by the radiation.Traditional radiation treatments are done separately from surgery, and typically involve five days of treatment per week, for five to six weeks (http://www.cancercenter.com/breast-cancer/iort/). Traditional radiation treatments expose an entire area of the body to harmful rays, causing damage to healthy cells as well as cancerous.

The side effects on a patient can be severe; my mom developed a severe reaction to her radiation therapy in the form of a rash. She was hospitalized for a week, and had to undergo additional surgeries. I remember walking into the hospital (which I’d grown to know pretty well by then) and making my way toward my mom’s room with my older sister. As I entered, I saw her lying in the hospital bed in a tremendous amount of pain and discomfort. At ten years old, I laid down beside her in hope to provide some sort of relief. The devastating effects that traditional therapy has on both breast cancer patients and their families need to be addressed through advancements in treatments.

Recent advancements have been made, namely Intraoperative Radiation Therapy. IORT delivers a concentrated dose of radiation therapy directly to a cancerous tumor during surgery. This treatment only affects the cancer cells, because surrounding body area is not exposed to radiation. This is an attempt to address the negative effects of exposing healthy cells to the destructiveness of radiation. IORT also reduces radiation time, taking only 4–5 minutes during surgery instead of multiple treatments over many weeks.

However, IORT can only be used to treat early stage, nonaggressive cancers. Two large studies suggest that intraoperative radiation therapy offers about the same overall survival rates as whole-breast external beam radiation therapy for women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. Yet women who underwent IORT had higher rates of local recurrence (cancer coming back in the same breast) than women who had traditional therapy (http://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/20131203). This new form of radiology helps decrease the amount of healthy tissue exposed, and therefore side effects, but has not lead to progress for patients due to its ineffectiveness at preventing recurrence.

While significant advances in breast cancer treatments have been made, there are still many risks and limitations to the treatments available, as well as a wide unawareness. Everyone has a mother, aunt, or sister in their lives that has a 13% chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. Statistically speaking, this disease affects a large number of the population each year; yet many people do not learn about treatment options until personally affected. This delayed education and awareness of options facilitates the lack of funding and attention that is given toward progressing treatments. Breast cancer treatments need to be progressed to limit the harsh side effects they have on both patients and their families. Patients are devastating effects both physically and mentally by the treatments as much as they are by the diagnosis. Educating people about treatment options and their side effects will increase awareness for the necessary advancements that need to be made in breast cancer treatments. Don’t wait to be educated; breast cancer can affect you, your mother, sister, or friend, and a lack of knowledge can impede the effectiveness of treatment options.