Breast cancer, which afflicts more than 7 million people around the globe, is the world’s most prevalent cancer and the most common form of cancer among women. Its long-term health effects include chronic fatigue, unintentional weight loss, skin problems, and even tumours in organs like the brain and lungs if the cancer metastasises.
Though screening and treatment for the condition can certainly help, many breast cancer patients see these as additional hurdles to their well-being. They cannot be blamed, as both screening and treatment processes for breast cancer are often costly, painful, and intrusive in nature.
The good news is that breast cancer research and oncology practice have vastly improved over the years, thanks to cancer treatment philosophies that are less homogenous and that utilise cutting-edge medical technology. Below are four examples of innovations in breast cancer treatment, all of which are already in practice or are highly likely to see mainstream adoption soon. If you’ve recently been diagnosed with breast cancer or have a loved one fighting the dreaded disease, the following developments are worth looking forward to:
Earlier and More Advanced Breast Cancer Screening Methods
There’s a growing number of advocates for what’s called “precision oncology,” or oncology practice that involves in-depth surveys of the molecular characteristics and genetic make-up of tumours in individual cancer patients. This starts with the screening process, which can now yield a lot more information about the patient’s genetic disposition and risk factors for breast cancer.
Thanks to developments like 3D mammography and risk profiling that utilises artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML), screening processes are also faster, more accurate, and more detailed. Such advancements definitely make it easier for patients and their families to learn the extent of the disease and to make crucial decisions on treatment, like whether to get mastectomy surgery.
Painless and Unobtrusive Options for Biopsies
Another advancement in cancer screening pertains to biopsies, or diagnostic procedures that involve the removal of breast tissue for closer examination. Before, patients only had the option of getting a surgical biopsy or a needle biopsy, both of which involve making incisions in the breast—and both of which are often regarded as invasive and a source of discomfort and stress.
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But current medical technologies now allow for liquid biopsies, or biopsies that can be carried out with nothing more than a sample of the patient’s blood. Doctors can use this sample to identify either cancer cells or find evidence of mutations in a cancer tumour’s DNA. Though further research must be done to help doctors distinguish cancer cell mutations from those of white blood cells, the liquid biopsy presents an innovative and unobtrusive alternative to the traditional surgical or needle biopsy.
More Responsive Treatment According to the Patient’s Subtype of Breast Cancer
One significant challenge in the area of oncology dealing with breast cancer is the homogeneity of treatment approaches. Modern oncological research has established that there are different clinical subtypes of breast cancer, with the three main subtypes being hormone receptor (HR) positive breast cancer, human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) positive breast cancer, and triple-negative breast cancer.
Simply put, a case of breast cancer can involve either the estrogen receptor or the progesterone receptor, a combination of the two, the HER2 protein, a combination of HR and HER2, or none of these at all. In the ideal scenario, breast cancer treatment should acknowledge the differences in these cases and point doctors towards a custom-tailored combination of medications and therapies to use. Luckily, cancer research has equipped practitioners with extensive tools and technologies to address each subtype and to help breast cancer patients zero in on the most appropriate interventions.
New Targeted Therapies for Advanced HR-Positive Breast Cancer
Patients suffering from HR-positive breast cancer that has metastasised, or grown more malignant, also have more options available to them in the realm of targeted therapy. As its name implies, this type of therapy utilises drugs to destroy cancer cells while reducing the harm wrought on ordinary cells. This may provide some much-needed relief to HR-positive breast cancer patients who are considering chemotherapy, as effective targeted therapy can potentially prolong chemo and—if all goes well—extend the patient’s survival.
Some examples of drugs that have been approved for targeted therapy of metastatic HR-positive breast cancer cases include palbociclib, ribociclib, everolimus, abemaciclib, and alpelisib. Researchers are still verifying whether these drugs are also effective for earlier-stage diagnoses.
It will remain difficult for breast cancer patients, their loved ones, and their care providers to confront the myriad challenges associated with this disease. But treatment has since evolved to become more responsive to the complexity and variability of each case, as well as less painful and uncomfortable on the part of the patients.
It is the hope of everyone involved in the fight against breast cancer that patients will obtain more options for treatment, more individualised treatment pathways, and greater chances of recovering and surviving. If cancer research and technology continue to move forward, the future will be bright.