How We’re Winning the War on Breast Cancer

New discoveries are giving women the tools to beat this devastating disease.

I was 18 when I first felt a lump in my breast. Of course, I was convinced that I was going to die. This was three decades ago—back when we knew far less about breast cancer. A general surgeon removed the lump, which, thank goodness, wasnt malignant.

But before I was even a fully developed woman, I was rendered lopsided and scarred. My surgeon had wielded his scalpel with outsized caution, cutting out a quarter of my breast just to test a pea-size growth. He gave little thought to how his young patient would feel about a healthy breast, surgically deformed.

Fortunately, far fewer women have to put up with such blunt “solutions” these days. Although 190,000-plus will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, many of them will go on to live wonderfully cancer-free lives because of enormous improvements in how we detect, treat, even prevent this disease. Heres how were actually winning the war on breast cancer.

We know more than ever
Once identified only by how far the disease had advanced—such as stage 0 or stage IV—scientists now know that breast cancer is actually many diseases and that each tumor has a unique genetic fingerprint. There is luminal A and B, HER2 type, and triple negative, among others. That means physicians can more effectively target treatment with therapies that have the best chance of working.

Treatment gets personal
Researchers now know that women diagnosed in the early stages of estrogen-receptor-positive cancer respond well to hormonal therapies like tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors, which starve breast cancer cells of the hormones they need to grow. And, since 2004, the Oncotype DX test that helps identify the best treatment has been available to women who get this type of cancer—which is about 75% of breast cancer patients.

“In the past, we were giving chemotherapy to women who would have done just as well on hormonal therapy,” says Susan Love, MD, president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation and clinical professor of surgery at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Now, with this test, we can tell if a woman doesnt need it. Thats great.” This means you might be spared chemos nausea, exhaustion, and hair loss. About 100,000 women have gotten the test. Patients should ask their doc if its right for them.

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Susan Brink
Last Updated: September 21, 2009

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