The American Cancer Society recently published a report on cancer, and breast cancer is still the most common cancer for women, accounting for 30% of all female cancer cases. The report found that while the incident rate of breast cancer continues to rise, the number of women who survive breast cancer is also growing.
“The survival rate for female breast cancer has improved about 40% in the last 30 years and is one of the highest survival rates of any cancer,” said David Faddis, MD, FACS, a general surgeon who specializes in surgical oncology and breast surgery. “That is due in part to screening and advances in technology such as digital mammography, however improvements to cancer treatment itself have likely had the biggest impact on survival.”
Breast cancer treatment typically involves some combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, although not all women need all three.
“Research and best-practices have shifted the way we treat cancer and it has become much more personalized,” said Dr. Faddis. “Two women with the same type of cancer may not receive the same treatment depending on a number of individual factors.”
Using tailored treatment is a relatively new way to approach cancer care. After 34 years practicing surgical oncology, Dr. Faddis notes other changes he has observed in cancer treatment that are improving care:
1. Surgical Advances
“With what we know now about how cancer grows and spreads, our surgical techniques focus on removing the tumor and affected lymph nodes while preserving healthy tissue,” said Dr. Faddis. “When we affect the body in a more precise way, we can treat the cancer and with potentially fewer complications.”
Breast reconstruction is a concern for many women who undergo a mastectomy, a procedure where the whole breast is removed. New techniques can often preserve the skin and nipple of the breast during surgery so a later reconstruction looks and feels more natural.
2. Targeted Radiation
It used to be that radiation therapy was recommended daily for 7 weeks for most breast cancer patients. Now, however, targeted radiation treatments can be customized to the patient and the tumor. Before treatment, three-dimensional computer planning creates an image of the tumor to calculate a precise treatment path and minimize the effect on surrounding internal organs and muscle. As a result, women often need fewer days of treatment. Additional advances while delivering radiation, like the Deep Inspiration Breath Hold, can help protect the heart during treatment.
3. Genetic Testing
Testing a person’s genetics for hereditary cancers can help identify risk factors for future cancer before it occurs. An oncologist may also use genetic testing after a breast cancer diagnosis to help guide treatment decisions. Testing can help determine a woman’s risk of the breast cancer recurring and the effectiveness of chemotherapy on the cancer.
4. Clinical Trials
Results from clinical trials help move cancer treatment forward, and participating in clinical trials gives patients access to the most cutting-edge treatments available.
“Everything we know now about the best ways to treat cancer is because of clinical trials,” said Dr. Faddis. “As a medical and research institution, participating gives us access to the newest protocols, and for our patients they have the chance potentially to make a difference in the lives of thousands of others.”
As researchers discover more about the biology of cancer, Dr. Faddis estimates that customized cancer treatment will continue to evolve.
“Our understanding of the disease has grown immensely, but there’s still plenty left to learn,” he said.
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