October 27, 2023

Newer treatments, the importance of early detection, and how comprehensive breast centers can help.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. However, staying aware of breast cancer is crucial all year. Early detection can help improve outcomes for patients who test positive. If you or someone you love is diagnosed with breast cancer, experts also want people to know that treatments have vastly improved, even for advanced or harder-to-treat forms of breast cancer.

“We’ve come such a long way in breast cancer.”

“We’ve come such a long way in breast cancer,” said Dr. Laura Kennedy, an oncologist with the Vanderbilt Breast Center. “One of the things that has really changed in the last five years is that we have so many more medications and ways to improve people’s outcomes.”

Newer treatments for breast cancer

“Early breast cancers are very curable, but even women with metastatic breast cancer can have good quality of life for sometimes a long period of time,” Kennedy said. “Of course, we’re hopeful that even fewer women will have metastatic breast cancer if we continue to improve our early breast cancer treatment.

“One of the things that has really changed in the last five years is that we have so many more medications and ways to improve people’s outcomes.”

Some newer medications are particularly helpful for people who have higher risk forms of breast cancer.

For people who have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, the medication olaparib, sold under the brand name Lynparza, can help reduce the risk of reoccurrence after surgery. “In the metastatic setting, it is a really great medication,” Kennedy said. “The Olympia study showed the medication can reduce the risk of breast cancer reoccurrence by another 40%, which is amazing.”

Other medications help reduce the risk of reoccurrence in estrogen receptor positive (ER+) breast cancer with the involvement of lymph nodes. These include abemaciclib, sold under the brand name Verzenio, and ribociclib, sold under the brand name Kisqali. “We have been really excited about that, because ER positive breast cancer makes up about 70% of the cases that we see,” Kennedy said. “So that is a lot of potential people who now might be cured of their breast cancer.

Researchers doing clinical trials are also studying how much treatment is truly necessary for patients with breast cancer. “We are trying to think more about quality of life and trying to optimize therapy for patients,” Kennedy said. “We’re starting to think about trying to give people less treatment and fewer side effects, while also achieving good outcomes.”In some types of cancer, chemotherapy may eventually be omitted, for example.

The importance of early detection

“Make sure you get your annual mammograms.”

Research continually shows that screenings and early detection help improve outcomes. “Make sure you get your annual mammograms,” Kennedy said.

Although screening recommendations vary from one organization or society to the next, Kennedy said she’s an advocate for starting screening at age 40. However, talk to your doctor about your family history of breast cancer. Screening may start even earlier for you, depending on several factors.

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A comprehensive approach to care

The Vanderbilt Breast Center, located at 100 Oaks in Nashville, is a comprehensive clinic with radiologists, oncologists, surgical oncologists, plastic surgeons and more – all in one place. Vanderbilt is also a leader in clinical trial research, which can often give patients an edge in care, whether they have early or advanced breast cancer.

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