My 24 year old patient with breast cancer and her husband were ecstatic when I gave them the news that her scans came back looking clean without any evidence of disease. I remember the day when I first shared the news with them that she had an aggressive breast cancer and it had spread to her liver. Her breast cancer was positive for Her2/neu, a marker of aggressive disease. Over the next several months, we embarked on treatment with some of the recently approved drugs for this cancer called Herceptin and Pertuzumab. It was quite remarkable to see her cancer rapidly shrink in response to these drugs and she tolerated the treatments extremely well without any significant side effects. She is currently on a small maintenance dose of Herceptin along with a hormonal pill and is feeling great.
Breast cancer is curable if caught early. It is also is one of the few cancers where we have screening techniques such as mammograms that can pick up cancers early. It is therefore is very important for all women to have yearly mammograms starting no later than age 40. In addition to this, women should make a regular habit of performing self-breast examinations every month to catch any lumps that may arise between mammograms.
Did you know that the lifetime probability of developing breast cancer is one in six? It is also the most common cancer in females in the US. Breast or ovarian cancers can run in families although, this accounts for only 5-10% of all breast cancers. In addition, there are some modifiable risk factors for breast cancer including use of oral contraceptive pills or estrogen pills, obesity especially after menopause, diets high in saturated fats, as well as drinking more than one alcoholic drink a day. The good news is that one can lower their risk of developing breast cancer by changing the above risk factors.
Today, treatment of breast cancer is individualized according to the type of breast cancer and the extent of disease and may include surgery, radiation treatments, chemotherapy and/or pills. Even if the cancer has spread to other organs, breast cancer is very treatable with multiple very effective treatments in the form of a pill or intravenous medicines which have shown to significantly prolong life and also significantly improve quality of life.
Fortunately, most women are able to lead a near-normal life while undergoing treatments. The treatments are typically administered as an outpatient so that there is little interruption to one’s daily life at home and even at work. This is because today we have many strong medicines that effectively prevent some of the side effects from chemotherapy including strong anti-nausea medicines and other medicines that prevent blood counts from dropping to very low levels.
Just as in the case of my patient above, it is very exciting to see so many new medications that have been and continue to be approved for treatment of breast cancer over the past 4-5 years. For example, about 10 years ago, we did not have good treatments for some of the very aggressive breast cancers called Her2/neu positive breast cancers. Today, we have non-chemotherapy medicines with minimal side effects called targeted treatments for Her2/neu positive breast cancers that have cured many of these previously incurable cancers. These medicines don’t cause hair loss and are not nauseating and are truly remarkable drugs! We have many such promising drugs in the pipeline being evaluated in clinical trials and will hopefully be approved in the coming years.
Take charge of your breast health. Please be proactive. Do your monthly self-breast exam which involves simply feeling around the breast and alerting your doctor to any new lumps or changes in the breast. Finally, remember that being proactive and making it to your mammogram appointment just once a year can be life saving! If caught early, it is curable. Go Pink Athens!
Dr. Priya Rudolph, a graduate from Yale University is an experienced hematologist/oncologist with Georgia Cancer Specialists affiliated with Northside Hospital Cancer Institute (www.gacancer.com). She has offices in Athens (ph 706-369-4478) and in Greensboro (Ph 706 454-0159). Georgia Cancer Specialists is a top 10 privately owned practice and is a national leader in advanced cancer treatment and research. Its physicians and staff offer many clinical trials and state of the art personalized care to each individual patient.