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New breast cancer therapies could increase survival rates

There’s no doubt that progress is being made when it comes to treating breast cancer, and survival rates bear that out.

Back in the 1960s, the chances of a woman surviving breast cancer stood somewhere around 60 percent, said oncologist and hematologist Dr. Kathleen Lambert who works at both the Conyers and Decatur offices of Georgia Cancer Specialists, and is also on staff at Rockdale Medical Center, Newton Medical Center and DeKalb Medical Center.

Today, the overall survival rate for breast cancer patients is 90 percent, with the cure rate as high as 98 percent for those with Stage 1, she said.

Statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the incidence of breast cancer has dropped by .9 percent each year between 2000 and 2009, and the mortality rate has dropped 2.1 percent annually.

While prevention and screening are keys to increasing the survival rate, said Lambert, treatments also play a role.

“We definitely have made improvements over the years,” she said. “Compared to other cancers, breast cancer is ahead of the game in terms of new treatments that are available and part of that is publicity and funding.”

Traditional breast cancer treatments still entail surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, said Lambert, but now doctors include hormonal therapy and targeted therapy in their arsenal of cancer-fighting resources.

Hormonal therapy medicine treats the entire body and is used to combat hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer, the most common type of breast cancer.

If a cancer has receptors for either estrogen or progesterone, it’s considered hormone-receptor-positive, according to www.breastcancer.org. Breastcancer.org reports that 80 percent of breast cancers are estrogen-receptor-positive and 2 percent are estrogen-receptor-negative but progesterone-receptor-positive.

Lambert said new targeted therapies have also been developed to treat HER-2 (Human Epidermal growth factor Receptor 2) cancer that is found in about 25 percent of breast cancer cases.

Lambert said that women can have all three types of cancer — HER-2, estrogen-receptor-positive and progesterone-receptor-positive; a combination of two; only one, or none of those types.

The bottom line is that because these types of cancer can now be better determined, doctors can tailor their treatments, said Lambert.

Most notably, the FDA approved a new drug within the last year (that will join several others) in treating the highly aggressive HER-2.

“These drugs have been showing improvement in survival, which is really promising because once we can help women with metastatic Stage 4, then we can use it in early-stage cancer,” said Lambert.

Still, Lambert cautioned that women with Stage 4, or metastatic, cancers currently have a survival rate of between 20 and 25 percent.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” she said.