Advances in breast cancer treatments offer new hope

Dr. Anita Johnson
A surgical oncologist focused on treating breast cancer at CTCA's Atlanta-area hospital, Dr. Anita Johnson discusses how cutting-edge treatments are offering women hope to manage and overcome the disease.

As a surgical oncologist focused on treating breast cancer, I see daily how devastating a breast cancer diagnosis can be. But I also see daily how new and often cutting-edge breast cancer treatments give women the hope and courage they need to help manage or overcome the physical, mental and emotional challenges of breast cancer, and in many cases, beat the disease altogether.

One in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). While the leading risk factors are well known—older age, family history, mutations in certain genes—the most important risk factor for breast cancer is simply being a woman. The fact that any woman can develop breast cancer is one reason annual mammograms and clinical breast exams are so important; regular screening helps detect cancer early. As with every type of cancer, when breast cancer is discovered early, there are more treatment options available, survival rates are longer and the cure rate is higher.

Data from the NCI show consistent declines in both new cases and deaths from breast cancer since 1990. Further, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that from 2002 to 2011, the incidence of breast cancer among U.S. women did not increase, while mortality decreased 1.9 percent annually. What’s most notable about these data is that breast cancer mortality is decreasing faster than incidence—meaning that women with breast cancer are living longer.  New technologies and improvements in existing treatments are likely contributing to the stronger numbers and improved quality of life for women with breast cancer.

For example, a new technology called the MarginProbe® System helps surgeons determine if cancer cells are present in the margins of tissue that has been removed. The technology is designed to reduce the rate of second surgeries following lumpectomy. Continued refinements in breast-conserving and reconstructive oncoplastic surgery techniques are also adding to the array of advanced treatment technologies available today.

Advanced genomic testing is an innovative diagnostic tool that allows tumors to be examined on a genetic level. By identifying mutations that occur in a cancer cell’s genome, doctors can better understand what caused the tumor and tailor treatment based on these findings. Genomic testing results may lead oncologists to suggest that a drug normally used for another type of cancer could be an appropriate treatment for breast cancer based on the genetic properties of the tumor.

Another example is intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT), one of many new technologies that deliver radiation more precisely, helping minimize damage to healthy tissue and treatment times. With IORT, radiation is delivered directly to the tumor site after a surgeon has removed the tumor. A 30-minute dose of IORT may be able to replace weeks of traditional radiation.

There have also been numerous advances in chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. Targeted therapy blocks specific molecules involved in tumor growth by directing drugs or other specially-created compounds to attack cancer cells. A targeted therapy called chemoembolization delivers medication through a catheter directly into a tumor using image guidance. The chemotherapy drugs are mixed with particles called microspheres that block blood flow to the tumor.

With so many options available to treat breast cancer today, treatments can almost be tailored to the individual based on factors such as her genetic profile, location of the tumor, the type of tumor and whether the cancer has spread. However, which treatment a woman ultimately chooses is a very personal decision best made in collaboration with her family, personal physician and oncologist.

Learn more about advanced treatments for breast cancer.