Back in the 1970s, mastectomy was the only accepted surgical option for breast cancer treatment. A lot has changed since then, including steadily increasing breast cancer survival rates, more sophisticated diagnostic techniques and a wide range of treatment options.
What remains the same, however, is that the earlier you can catch cancer, the better your chances of stopping the spread of the disease.
Breast cancer spectrum
While survival rates have steadily climbed through the years, breast cancer continues to remain a top health concern. It is the second leading cause of cancer death for women, just behind lung cancer. About 12 percent of women are expected to develop invasive breast cancer at some point in their lives.
There are many types of breast cancer. And there is no one diagnostic tool that can identify all cancer types, nor is there one kind of treatment or surgical solution.
The disease manifests differently in different people, and drugs that work for one person may be completely ineffective in another.
“We really learned this to be true with genetic studies on breast tumors,” said Michael Grant, MD, co-medical director of the Breast Cancer Research and Treatment Center at Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center and physician on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. “As we unravel the DNA of these tumors, we’re astounded at how different they are at the genetic level.”
That makes treating breast cancer — or any cancer — more challenging.
Typically, cancer drugs rely on a single, common target affecting the growth machinery of a tumor. But as Dr. Grant notes, cancers can be very smart and bypass these treatments. To have a narrowly targeted therapy may not be adequate. But a new type of treatment currently being researched at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas and elsewhere takes a different approach. It’s referred to as a therapeutic vaccine.
A pilot vaccine treatment for a particularly challenging type of breast cancer, called “triple negative,” is now underway at Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center at Dallas.
Though they are called vaccines, these treatments are not preventive. They are used with patients who already have the disease. Their purpose is to trigger the immune system to react and work in conjunction with chemotherapies to help those treatments be more effective.
“The immune system is very powerful,” Dr. Grant said. “It has the potential to help us kill tumors that would otherwise develop resistance to chemotherapy, and so far this pilot study seems to be very promising.”
Results from the study are expected within the next two years.
Early detection is key
The same genetic differences that make treating breast cancers so challenging can make detection equally challenging.
Despite ongoing controversies, a digital screening mammogram is still considered the best first step in breast cancer detection. But for some women, these tests may not be enough.
A case in point: the 40 percent or more of women who have what’s called dense breast tissue. It is difficult for a screening mammogram to see cancer in this type of tissue. But with 3D mammograms, women with dense breasts have another option.
Any woman may develop breast cancer. However, there are risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing the disease.
Women who inherit mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes stand a much higher chance of developing breast, ovarian and other cancers. Normally these genes help to repair DNA damage. However, if these genes are mutated and no longer function properly, then additional mutations in other cancer-causing genes accumulate, leading to the development of cancer.
Researchers at Baylor University Medical Center and elsewhere continue to learn about what causes breast cancer as well as new ways of diagnosing and treating the disease. Heredity risk studies are advancing understanding of the ways in which cancers can manifest at the cellular level. Scientists are on the hunt for new drugs and methods that can thwart the disease before it becomes invasive. Until then, regular screenings are recommended as the best defense against breast cancer.
Learn what Baylor Scott & White breast cancer treatment options can offer you.
About the author
This content has been written or reviewed by a member of the Baylor Scott & White Health medical staff.