When breast cancer is caught early, five-year survival rates are 99%, according to the American Cancer Society. But breast cancer is not just one specific disease; there are many different types.
“Each individual’s breast cancer is different, and it affects them in different ways,” says Dr. Keith Wells, a medical oncologist at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute in Corvallis. “Where the breast cancer is located, where it has spread to, how big it is—all that plays a role in different treatment options for patients.”
Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and hormone therapies still play a role in breast cancer treatment, depending on a person’s cancer type and progression. Newer to the arena are targeted therapies, immunotherapies and ongoing clinical trials.
Targeted therapies can be used to treat breast cancer based on the specific characteristics of cancer cells, such as a protein that allows the cells to grow quickly or abnormally.
“When breast cancers are evaluated in the pathology lab, certain stains are added to them to look for the estrogen receptor and the progesterone receptor, as well as a receptor called HER2,” says Dr. Wells. “How a patient’s breast cancer expresses those proteins, determines which treatment we can offer.”
Researchers and oncologists now understand that being able to target a certain aspect of a tumor leads to better outcomes for the patient.
“Because a lot of times, those mutations are what’s driving the tumor—its growth, its replication, its resistance to dying,” says medical oncologist Dr. Jon Gross. “So, if we are able to shut that mutation off, then we can shut off that cancer.”
In general, Dr. Gross says, targeted therapies are often more effective, longer-lasting and less toxic than other therapy options.
For cancers that have no positive hormone receptors, including a subtype called triple-negative, hormone therapy or targeted therapy, such as HER2 drugs, are not helpful, so treatment often consists of a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
Another area of breast cancer research is focused on immunotherapy—a class of treatments that boost a person’s own immune system to help kill cancer cells. Several newer studies suggest that immunotherapy has the potential to improve outcomes for breast cancer patients.
“We have made tremendous strides over the past few years (with immunotherapy) and there’s still active research that I anticipate will continue to improve survival rates over the years,” Dr. Gross says.
Improving efficacy with clinical trials
Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that test promising new therapies or procedures to advance cancer treatment.
Through its partnership with The US Oncology Network, Willamette Valley Cancer Institute and Research Center provides many investigational drugs through clinical trials, providing patients access to experimental treatments otherwise unavailable. If you’re interested in participating in a trial, your oncologist can help determine if you’re a candidate. To ensure safety, candidates are carefully screened.
Lowering your risk of breast cancer
Women and men can take charge of their health by performing routine breast self-exams and reporting anything abnormal to their doctor.
Talk with your health care provider about when you should begin routine mammograms. You may be advised to start screenings sooner if you have a family history of the disease. However, it’s estimated that 85% of women who develop breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors—that’s why regular screening is so important.
Early detection often means less treatment for patients and better outcomes. The most recent advancement in mammography, 3D imaging, can catch cancer in its earliest form and is especially useful in identifying cancer in those with dense breast tissue. Studies show that 3D mammography also reduces the number of women being called back for false positive test results.
Learn more about the latest developments in breast cancer research.