Advances in Breast Cancer Care Mean More Hope and Survivorship for Patients
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A technician positions a woman at a mammography scanning machine.

There are more effective screenings and treatments for breast cancer than ever. Thanks to insightful research, better early detection, and more effective therapies, the death rate from breast cancer has dropped 43% from 1989 to 2020. 

But there is still work to be done. 

The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that almost 300,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in U.S. women this year, and more than 43,000 will die from the disease. 

The five-year relative survival rate for breast cancer is 99% when it is detected early and has not spread. That’s why early detection and comprehensive care remain very important to ensuring more patients have successful outcomes.

The last few years have seen significant advances in how we detect and treat cancers of the breast. 

Advances in early detection.

Expanded options to screen for breast cancer in its earliest stages are helping more patients seek treatment before the disease can progress. 

Breast cancer is one of the only cancers that have an effective test: the mammogram. That’s why MedStar Health recommends that women age 40 and up with an average risk for breast cancer have a mammogram every year. 

If you have risk factors for breast cancer such as a family history, talk with your doctor about when to begin screening. At MedStar Health, we work proactively with genetic counselors to determine your personalized level of risk. 

Based upon your individual risk, our fellowship-trained specialists offer a full spectrum of imaging care, including:

  • Traditional mammography
  • Digital mammography (3D mammography)
  • Breast MRI
  • Breast ultrasound

When cancer is detected, modern developments are helping to make even challenging cancers more treatable than ever before.

Leaps and bounds in cancer treatment.

There are several subtypes of breast cancer, and for every type we treat there have been treatment advances in recent years. From new immunotherapies and hormone therapy to targeted treatments, we have many more ways to treat breast cancers than even 10 years ago. Here are some particularly promising examples. 

HER2-positive breast cancer.

HER-2 positive breast cancer cells have high levels of a protein called HER2, which promotes the growth of cancer cells. This type can grow quickly and has a high risk of recurrence.

HER2-positive breast cancer is usually treated with targeted antibodies and chemotherapy, followed by a second-line treatment that can stop the cancer’s progression for an additional year or so. For more advanced disease, a new drug called fam-trastuzumab deruxtecan (Enhertu), has become a new second-line treatment that stops progression much longer.

Targeted and hormonal therapies use medicines that are directed toward proteins on the surface of breast cancer cells to help slow down their growth. These medicines, including monoclonal antibodies, antibody-drug conjugates, PARP inhibitors, and tyrosine kinase inhibitors, sometimes work when chemotherapy cannot.

Related reading: 5 Breakthrough Breast Cancer Treatments.

Triple-negative breast cancer.

One of the most complex and elusive forms of the disease, triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) does not have the receptors that are typically found in cancer cells, making it especially challenging to treat.

Advances in survivorship have not been equally shared by all women. The ACS notes that Black women have the highest death rate from cancer, perhaps because of a greater likelihood of developing TNBC and of higher chance of breast cancer earlier in life than other racial or ethnic groups.

Our latest research examines whether an immunotherapy and chemotherapy combination or antibody-drug conjugates can help treat early-stage TNBC that hasn’t responded to chemotherapy. This medication has improved outcomes for patients with advanced TNBC, so we’re investigating it’s use earlier in the disease.

In another promising development for the treatment of TNBC, early research suggests that a “liquid biopsy” could alert doctors to cancer in a patient’s blood to find cancer that comes back. Traditional breast biopsy is the only definitive way to diagnose breast cancer.

New technologies and medicines are changing the face of cancer care, but without an expert team delivering that care to patients, innovations don’t mean much.

Related reading: Research Reveals New Avenues for Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Treatment.

Team-based care is the best care.

When surgeons, medical oncologists, pathologists, radiation oncologists, and other providers work together, patients have the best outcomes. Genetic counselors can help patients understand the details and make decisions about genomically directed treatments. Plastic surgeons provide breast reconstruction procedures, and mental health clinicians support patients’ emotional needs.

All these professionals and others are important parts of providing care that treats the whole person, not just the cancer. Nurse navigators are crucial components of team-based healthcare, helping patients as a primary point of contact and concierge through the complicated process of cancer treatment. 

At MedStar Washington Hospital Center, we’re proud to offer our patients innovative, comprehensive care that can help them lead long, full lives after a cancer diagnosis. With personalized, targeted treatments, holistic care, and access to the latest treatment options, our patients have a better chance at a successful outcome than ever before.

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