These Breast Cancer Advancements Will Forever Change How You Fight This Disease
Here are 10 advances that will make your journey a little smoother.
Breast Cancer Advancements: New perspective
Breast cancer now fits the criteria of a chronic disease, along with the likes of high blood pressure, asthma and diabetes, says Dr. Ardythe Taylor, medical director of Breast Cancer Supportive Care in Calgary. “People live with the impact of these for long periods of time and can still die from them, but not necessarily,” explains Dr. Taylor. “Breast cancer fits that category now according to the World Health Organization.” Women may need medication for years, and some side effects will persist, but there are ways to medically manage it. And, even among women with metastatic breast cancer, many are living for a decade or more, she says, though side effects are challenging and medication may be required for years. “That’s the new picture of breast cancer.”
Breast Cancer Advancements: Health-care helpers
We now have professional health-care advisors called patient navigators to help patients through their treatment journeys. (If you’re getting treatment, here’s exactly what you should be eating.) Don’t have access to a patient navigator? The pages of Dr. David Palma’s new book Taking Charge of Cancer offer an easy stand-in. Dr. Palma, a radiation oncologist at the London Health Sciences Centre and cancer researcher with the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, offers guidance on getting the best cancer treatment, including advice on where to get treatment, how to get a (free) second opinion and what questions to ask your doctor. There’s no way to plan for a cancer diagnosis, but this book can help patients figure out what happens next.
Breast Cancer Advancements: The return of HRT
In 2002, the Women’s Health Initiative study, which was investigating the effects of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), was abruptly halted when some of the study authors claimed that giving women estrogen-progestin was linked to a rise in breast cancer and heart attacks. HRT, which was previously given to women to stave off the unpleasant and unhealthy side effects of menopause, fell out of use as women and doctors believed it to be dangerous. (Here are some shocking ways menopause can affect your brain.) But, 15 years later, researchers have revealed that the precaution was all hype. Now experts say that not only is there no increased risk of breast cancer for women under 60 who take HRT, there’s also a protective effect for hip bones and the heart.
Breast Cancer Advancements: Whole-patient healing
Dr. Taylor says holistic care centres that address the needs of breast cancer patients as a whole person and their families — and not just the disease — are an emerging field in oncology. At the Breast Cancer Supportive Care centre physicians, health coaches, psychologists, psychiatrists and more work together to help people impacted by breast cancer through their cancer journeys. The team educates patients about their surgeries; assists with practical matters, like figuring out how much time they need off work; helps with treatment side effects; offers support to family members and kids; and counsels patients through fears, anxiety, depression and body image issues — all of which can arise when a woman’s life is turned upside down by cancer. “Our wellness model includes physical, mental, emotional, relational and spiritual wellness,” she says.
Breast Cancer Advancements: Reconstruction
Each October, the Canadian Cancer Society partners with plastic surgeons to put on over 30 BRA Day (Breast Reconstruction Awareness Day) events across Canada. Each event features local sponsors, like implant companies and nipple tattoo artists, who explain their services. The highlight is the Show and Tell Lounge, where women who have had breast cancer and reconstruction show off the results of their surgeries and have intimate conversations about their experiences with women who are facing reconstruction decisions. “This can be an empowering experience that gives women a chance to explore their options,” says Natalie Witkin, senior manager partnerships & programs, Canadian Cancer Society. “It’s a very emotional experience as well.” And although the odds are high when it comes to developing cancer, it’s not as black and white as you think.
Breast Cancer Advancements: A network on the net
Dr. Palma says one of the biggest changes for modern cancer patients is that they’re more likely to seek connections online than in support groups. Cancer Hope Network is one example of a website that connects women with breast cancer to survivors who volunteer their time to listen and share their own experiences. “It allows people to get support in ways that were never possible in the past,” says Dr. Palma.
Breast Cancer Advancements: Community coordinating
When cancer strikes, friends and family gather round to lend their support, which often comes in the form of food. But, inevitably, a patient will find her fridge overflowing with lasagna some days and bare on others. That’s where Meal Train comes in. The website coordinates loved ones who offer help, with an online sign-up where they can schedule those homemade meal deliveries.
Breast Cancer Advancements: Proactive protein defence
For many women, the greatest fear is that the disease will spread. Dr. Peter Siegel, associate professor in the Department of Medicine and associate director of the Rosalind and Morris Goodman Cancer Research Centre at McGill University, and his team have had promising successes as they work to stop metastases. They’ve identified a protein called GPNMB that is involved in the spread of breast cancer and melanoma. GPNMB expression actually increases in cancer cells in response to chemo or targeted therapies. Now using a special drug that targets that protein, Dr. Siegel and his team are learning to better manage cancers that overexpose GPNMB. “We’ve been able to show in preclinical models that when combining these standard-of-care therapies with this new antibody drug conjugate, you get much better control of the disease,” says Dr. Siegel.
Breast Cancer Advancements: T-cell attackers
One of the most exciting areas of cancer research is focused on immunotherapy — using the body’s natural defences to defeat the disease. Until recently, breast cancer was thought to be resistant to these tactics. But now, Dr. Siegel’s colleague, Dr. Morag Park, principal investigator at McGill’s Park Lab, is identifying subsets of breast cancer that show a robust response from T cells (white blood cells that fight invaders) versus those that do not. Dr. Park’s team is looking for ways to reactivate those fighter cells. Think all this research sounds too far off to help today? It’s not. At the Park Lab, scientists take cancerous tissues from patients and put them into animal models to test how those specific cancers grow and react to different treatments, which is particularly helpful when a patient is resistant to a current treatment and her doctors need to know which options her cancer will respond to.
Breast Cancer Advancements: Zen connection
When the physical fight is over, today’s patients can focus on their spiritual health. Shawna Rich-Ginsberg, senior manager of support and education at Rethink Breast Cancer, says many health and wellness retreats have sprung up to help women cope. (Visiting Quebec City? Here are some wellness adventures that are a must.) Rethink, for one, hosts Stretch Heal Grow, a Muskoka, ON, getaway where women can do yoga, meditation and body image workshops. “It’s not about sitting around talking about cancer,” says Rich-Ginsberg. “It’s more about connecting with yourself, finding that community and meeting other people who are going through the same thing.”