Several new technologies offer hope for making future treatment easier for women with breast cancer. Using a special tool, doctors can today insert a miniature camera through the nipple and into a milk duct in the breast to examine the area for cancer.
Researchers are testing another technique to help women who have undergone weeks of conventional radiation therapy. Using a small catheter -- a tube with a balloon tip -- doctors can deliver tiny radioactive beads to a place on the breast where cancer tissue has been removed. This can reduce the therapy time to a matter of days.
New Drug Combination Therapies
New drug therapies and combination therapies continue to evolve.
A mix of drugs may increase the length of time you will live or the length of time you will live without cancer. It may someday prove useful for some women with localized breast cancer after they have had surgery.
New research shows women with early-stage breast cancer who took the drug letrozole, an aromatase inhibitor, after they completed five years of tamoxifen therapy significantly reduced their risk of breast cancer recurrence.
Treating HER2-Positive Breast Cancer
Herceptin® is a drug commonly used to treat women who have a certain type of breast cancer. This drug slows or stops the growth of cancer cells by blocking HER2, a protein found on the surface of some types of breast cancer cells.
Approximately 20 to 25 percent of breast cancers produce too much HER2. These "HER2 positive" tumors tend to grow faster and are generally more likely to return than tumors that do not overproduce HER2.
Results from clinical trials show that those patients with early-stage HER2 positive breast cancer who received Herceptin® in combination with chemotherapy had a 52 percent decrease in risk in the cancer returning compared with patients who received chemotherapy treatment alone.
Cancer treatments like chemotherapy can be systemic, meaning they affect whole tissues, organs, or the entire body. Herceptin®, however, was the first drug used to target only a specific molecule involved in breast cancer. Another drug, Tykerb®, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use for treatment of HER2-positive breast cancer. Because of the availability of these two drugs, an international trial called ALTTO was designed to determine if one drug is more effective, safer, and if taking the drugs separately, in tandem order, or together is better.
The TAILORx Trial
In an attempt to further specialize breast cancer treatment, The Trial Assigning Individualized Options for Treatment, or TAILORx, enrolled 10,000 women to examine whether appropriate treatment can be assigned based on genes that are frequently associated with risk of recurrence of breast cancer.
The goal of TAILORx is important because the majority of women with early-stage breast cancer are advised to receive chemotherapy in addition to radiation and hormonal therapy, yet research has not demonstrated that chemotherapy benefits all of them equally.
TAILORx seeks to examine many of a woman's genes simultaneously and use this information in choosing a treatment course, thus sparing women unnecessary treatment if chemotherapy is not likely to be of substantial benefit to them.
Several methods can reduce the risk of breast cancer. The drug tamoxifen has been proven to lower the chance of cancer in high-risk women.
A clinical trial of this drug sponsored by the National Cancer Institute that included more than 13,000 pre-menopausal and post-menopausal women. All of the women were considered at high risk for breast cancer.
One group of women took the drug tamoxifen and another took a placebo -- an inactive pill that looked like tamoxifen. The results of the study showed a 49 percent decrease in breast cancer among women who took tamoxifen.
Tamoxifen does have side effects. The most serious in some women are an increased risk of endometrial cancer, uterine sarcoma, and an increased risk of blood clots. Women at high risk for breast cancer may want to consult their doctor to see if tamoxifen may help them.
The STAR Trial
The Study of Tamoxifen and Raloxifene (STAR) was another clinical trial sponsored by the National Cancer Institute. STAR enlisted nearly 20,000 women to compare tamoxifen to the drug raloxifene for effectiveness in reducing of breast cancer risk.
Raloxifene, marketed as Evista®, has been approved for use to lower the risk of and treat osteoporosis.
Results of the STAR trial show that raloxifene works as well as tamoxifen in reducing breast cancer risk for postmenopausal women at increased risk of the disease. Both drugs decrease risk by about 50 percent.
In addition, women enrolled in STAR who were assigned to take raloxifene had fewer uterine cancers, blood clots, and cataracts than those taking tamoxifen.
However, taking raloxifene raised the risk of blood clots and fatal strokes in women already at risk.