Nearly 300,000 people will receive a diagnosis of breast cancer in the United States this year. Thanks to advances in diagnosing and treating breast cancer, more of these people will survive and live longer.
Breast cancer accounts for about 30% of new female cancers and is the second-leading cause of cancer death for women. Fortunately, the five-year survival rate is now 90%.
“We’re finding breast cancer earlier because of increased awareness and better screening,” said Anne Webb, regional director of Samaritan Cancer Program. “Also, better treatments have steadily increased survival.”
Treatment of breast cancer usually includes a combination of surgery, radiation and endocrine therapy. Some patients still need chemotherapy, but that number is decreasing. There are also new targeted therapies for specific types of breast cancer that are improving survival and reducing toxic side effects.
“The cancer treatment team considers every patient individually to decide on the best treatment,” said Yarrow McConnell, MD, FACS – a breast care specialist and surgical oncologist with Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center Breast & Surgical Oncology. Scientists and researchers are developing new approaches to treating cancer, including advances in genetic testing, radiation therapy and surgery. Here’s a look at some of the ways innovation is shaping breast cancer care.
Genetic Testing Can Reduce Risk & Help Guide Treatment
Genetic testing is a powerful detection tool to assess changes in our genes that can indicate a greater risk of cancer. Certain cancers can be hereditary, including breast, ovarian and colorectal cancers.
If you have close relatives who’ve been diagnosed with these cancers, genetic testing can provide information to help you avoid cancer.
There are more than two dozen common mutations, including the BRCA1 and BRACA2 mutations that are related to breast and ovarian cancer.
When testing shows a genetic mutation, a person can take preventive steps to detect cancer early or lower the risk for developing cancer.
For women with BRCA mutations, that may include earlier or more frequent mammograms, additional screenings or surgery. Knowing a mutation is present can also inform treatment options.
Genetic testing is simple, relatively inexpensive and is covered by many insurance.
Innovations Reduce Side-effects of Radiation Therapy
About half of patients with solid tumors are prescribed radiation as part of their treatment.
“Traditional radiation therapy uses an energy beam to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors,” said Alexander Bagley, MD, PhD – a radiation oncologist with Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center Radiation Oncology. “This prevents the cells from dividing and growing, which can slow or stop tumor growth.”
It’s been around for decades, but recent technology improvements have enhanced its usefulness on different tumor types.
State-of-the-art, high-energy linear accelerators, which are controlled by computer, deliver precise treatment based on a patient’s treatment plan. Radiation therapy can deliver the most effective dose while limiting damage to surrounding healthy tissue.
Cancer Surgery Is More Tailored
Surgery is a fundamental tool in treating breast cancer. Advances in technology and techniques make surgery more precise and effective while reducing the long-term impact on patient comfort and function.
Breast surgeons use breast-conserving techniques to remove cancer, while preserving breast tissue and minimize scarring, which is important to the aesthetic outcome.
Oncoplastic surgery combines removing the cancer with recontouring to improve the shape and comfort of the post-cancer breast. It also helps the tissue to remain healthy during and after radiation treatment.
When mastectomy (removal of the entire breast) is needed, developments in suturing and contouring techniques allow more women to be comfortable “going flat.” For those who decide to undergo breast reconstruction, advances in the design and placement of implants allow more women to have comfortable size and shape of post-cancer breast(s).
“Whenever possible, we try to mitigate the impacts of surgery,” said Dr. McConnell.
Learn more about personalized cancer treatment at Samaritan Cancer Program.