Now Open: Affiliated Oncologists' new location in Orland Park at Great Lakes Medical Center is now open. View Location Details


October 1, 2021

4 Ways Breast Cancer Treatment Has Recently Improved

4 Ways Breast Cancer Treatment Has Recently Improved

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women. Chances are, you or someone you love has either completed breast cancer treatment or is going through it now. Thankfully, the last decade of breast cancer research has produced amazing advancements in treatment options, breast cancer surgery techniques, prevention of side effects, lymph node preservation, and genetic testing that make the breast cancer journey look much different than it did even 20 years ago. Breast cancer patients are surviving longer than ever before.

Let’s take a look at four significant breast cancer treatment advances:

1. New Treatment Options for Breast Cancer

Chemotherapy, surgery, hormone therapy, and radiation therapy have been a standard part of breast cancer treatment for many years. As doctors learned more about breast cancer and the various receptors on the cells that help the cancer to grow, a new form of treatment was developed. Monoclonal antibodies, man-made versions of immune system proteins, are designed to block the HER2 protein receptors on cancer cells. By targeting these receptors the cancer cell growth can be stopped. This is called targeted therapy and it has changed how breast cancer is treated for the 20% of breast cancer patients who are HER2 positive.

Recent studies have shown adding immunotherapy to the breast cancer treatment plan for triple-negative breast cancer patients can improve outcomes for patients with this hard-to-treat type of breast cancer. Triple-negative breast cancer does not have hormone receptors or HER2 receptors that are fueling the cancer’s growth. Because of this, there are fewer treatment options known to be effective for triple-negative breast cancer. One recent advancement for these patients is an immunotherapy called an immune checkpoint inhibitor.

Cancer cells can trick the body into thinking they’re healthy. This immunotherapy helps the immune system see which cells are actually healthy and which are breast cancer cells that need to be attacked and killed. It’s only available to certain breast cancer patients at this time. There is still a lot of research currently underway to improve upon the immunotherapy treatment options for breast cancer.

2. Lymph Node Preservation in Surgery

The breast surgeon will not only remove the cancerous tumor but will also test nearby lymph nodes for the presence of cancer cells. Historically, surgeons routinely removed up to 40 lymph nodes near the breast in the armpit area to test them for cancer. This can result in a lot of side effects including lymphedema, or swelling of the arm because there aren’t enough lymph nodes left to move the lymph fluid through the arm. Lymphedema can also result in chronic pain, numbness, or (swelling) in the arm that can be permanent.

Sentinel lymph node mapping was introduced to help reduce the side effects for women with early-stage breast cancer. By injecting a dye into the tumor, the surgeon can tell which are the first (sentinel) lymph nodes to be affected. These few lymph nodes are then tested for cancerous cells. If they are clear, no further lymph node removal may be needed. If they have cancer, the surgeon can follow where the dye is moving to determine which ones are targeted for testing. In some cases, an axillary lymph node removal is required. But fewer patients experience the more severe side effects by using the Sentinel Lymph Node Mapping process.

2. Advancements in Genetic Testing

Most breast cancer is not caused by an inherited gene. Only about 5-10% of breast cancers are caused by a mutated BRCA gene that is inherited. For those who have a family history of breast cancer, the advancements in genetic testing can help save their lives and the lives of future family members. By understanding whether you have a mutated BRCA gene in your genetic makeup, you can make decisions about cancer screening and possible preventative steps for breast cancer as well as ovarian and prostate cancers. By taking these early precautions you’re more likely to find cancer at a much earlier stage when it’s more treatable. If more than one immediate family member has had breast or ovarian cancer, you may want to speak with a genetic counselor about whether genetic testing is right for you.

3. High Dose Rate (HDR) Brachytherapy

External beam radiation therapy has been a part of breast cancer treatment for many years. However, in recent years high-dose-rate brachytherapy for breast cancer has been developed for patients who had an early-stage breast tumor removed with a lumpectomy. Breast brachytherapy is performed by surgically placing a catheter into the breast near the tumor site containing the radioactive materialThe catheter is left in place for up to five days, releasing very targeted radiation therapy in the area where the cancer used to be.

This treatment is most effective for women whose breast cancer was found at an early stage, before spreading to lymph nodes. For these patients, chemotherapy is often unnecessary and the side effects of the breast brachytherapy are minimal including some pain in the area where the catheter is located, some swelling, or mild drainage.

Always Looking for Newer and Better Breast Cancer Treatments

The Affiliated Oncologists team of cancer experts is dedicated to understanding and using the latest breast cancer treatments for our patients. If you’ve been recently diagnosed with breast cancer and would like to know more about your treatment options, request an appointment with one of our oncologists in a South Chicago suburb that’s convenient for you. Second opinions are also available. We’re here to help you throughout your cancer journey.

Categories: Breast Cancer