As we close out October, otherwise known as “Breast Cancer Awareness Month”, I wanted to share a video of a webinar about advances in the fight against breast cancer, offered through the Yale Alumni Health Network, led by Dr. Jamie Wells.
The speakers included Dr. David Mankoff (from UPenn) and Drs. Lajos Pusztai, Maryam Lustberg and Eric Winer (all from Yale) as they talked about research being done on hormone-positive, HER2 receptor positive and triple negative breast cancers. I’ve pasted in the Vimeo clip from Twitter, but also offer my simplified synopsis below. If you have the time to watch (~45 min for the talks, then interesting Q&As for about 20 minutes), I highly recommend the video!
In the midst of the discussions, it was heartening to hear that the doctors placed a lot of emphasis on both health disparities in different populations and also the search for treatments that would not severely impact a patient’s quality-of-life. These are two important topics. I appreciated that they acknowledged that we cannot make advances in the disease if we are leaving behind large numbers of people for whom treatment is inaccessible, and that a treatment is not viable if it successfully treats the cancer but damages the patient in other ways.
The best overall news is that since 1990, deaths from breast cancer have decreased by a third. That’s a significant improvement within the past 30 or so years, even though the prevalence of the disease is increasing. Dr. Mankoff noted that the survival rate improvements are due not simply to earlier detection, but also to advances in the treatments.
HORMONE-POSITIVE BREAST CANCER
Dr. Lustberg spoke about hormone-positive breast cancers and started with a quick explanation of the history of such cancers, and then explained how current-day personalized medicine (genomic profiling) can identify the patients who might be spared chemo based on the characteristics of their tumors, and how targeted therapies improve survival rates. She experienced some audio issues towards the very end of her talk, but not much information was lost.
She acknowledged that the “most effective drug is one you can take”, stating that there’s been an effort to try to understand the toxicity of various treatments. If the drug’s side effects are too negative, patients will have a hard time continuing to take it. She noted the importance of keeping the patient involved in the decision making process, something that all of us who have been through this can applaud. It’s too easy for oncologists to forget that they’re treating a human being who will be dealing with the concequences of heavy treatments.
HER2+ BREAST CANCER
Dr. Winer discussed HER2-targeted therapy, noting that prior to the year 2000, it was considered one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer with common recurrences, after which the prognosis for survival was poor. As a HER2+ cancer suvivor, I am so thankful that this is no longer the case! The landscape changed with the introduction of monoclonal antibody drugs such as Herceptin, and the development of additional drugs, should Herceptin stop working, has given patients with this type of cancer much more hope for a full recovery.
Two of these new drugs for metastatic HER2+ cancer are “antibody drug conjugates” (T-DM1 and trastuzumab deruxtucan). Dr. Winer described them as Trojan Horses, as they can deliver the chemotherapy with which they’re paired directly into the cell, greatly decreasing side effects to the patient.
Perhaps most important, Dr. Winer actually used the word “cured” when talking about the outcomes for early stage HER2+ cancers, something that is truly remarkable. This is especially true for women with stage I cancers.
Many patients with stage II & III cancers receive the drugs prior to surgery, which can decrease the need for mastectomies and complete removal of the lymph nodes. In addition, pre-surgical treatment can guide the medical team in adjusting later therapies, based on how the tumor reacts to early drug administration.
Finally, Dr. Winer spoke of the stark disparities in cancer care, noting that black women are twice as likely to die from breast cancer as white women. Eliminating these disparities is his number one-rated area of importance for where to focus future efforts, something I strongly support.
TRIPLE NEGATIVE BREAST CANCER
Dr. Pusztai spoke of Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC), and having lost several friends to this specific type of cancer, I was very interested in treatment advances that have been made. He described the differences beween TNBC and hormone positive breast cancers, noting that it’s likely that these two diseases orginated from completely different cell types, suggesting that these are different diseases and should be viewed as such.
It was exciting to learn that most of the patients with early stage TNBC disease are able to be cured (again, that beautiful word!). We now have both better treatment strategies and new drugs, and success rates are improving year by year. Dr. Pusztai emphasized the benefits of completing chemotherapy prior to surgery, going against our strong impulse to “get the cancer out” first. With the drug-first strategy, medical teams can adjust the post-operative treatments as needed.
The thing that was so amazing to me was that the recurrence-free rate of survival was 85-90% with these “modern regimens” for early stage disease. That’s impressive!
Next on the horizon is fine-tuning the right balance of drugs for patients, given that chemotherapies are still toxic.
Dr. Pusztai stated that he felt we already have the drugs with which to cure “at least some” of the metastatic TNBC patients, especially for those who are diagnosed at stage IV (rather than having earlier-stage disease that was treated and later metastasized). The idea is to utilize existing drugs but apply them using the new treatment strategies that have been developed. However, Dr. Pusztai stressed that new drugs are also being developed.
There were a range of excellent questions that began at about the 45-minute mark, but as mentioned above, I enjoyed hearing the admissions by the doctors that they considered quality of life to be a very important factor in whether or not to continue medications, and they acknowledged that it is the patient who should have the control to balance their risks against their treatment options. Other questions included recurrence in hormone-positive cancers, development of drug resistance, genetic testing, continuation of care (“risk-stratified follow-up care”) and second opinions.
Dr. Winer commented that within a decade he felt we will have all the treatment we need to prevent and cure breast cancer in most patients, so again, he stressed that the focus must turn to making that treatment available to everyone, regardless of who they are.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST…
Dr. Winer admitted that many doctors, in treating patients, end up “taking over people’s lives and medicalizing their lives”. His approach, therefore, is “to try to provide therapy without making someone either unhappy or feeling like they are attached with a leash to their doctor’s office.” While there was some discussion related to this, I appreciated that doctors are actually thinking about this and want to allow patients to “live their lives”.
Finally, I was amused by the doctors’ admissions that even they found the drug names to be unpronounceable. It’s true that in my own treatment, I usually stuck to the easiest name to pronounce…I can’t imagine having to use those names on a daily basis!
I hope you found this helpful!