Breast cancer update

Jane Murphy / 17 October 2018

The past 12 months have been packed with encouraging breakthroughs and fresh initiatives for breast cancer.

More women could be spared chemo

A new gene test could help tailor treatment for women with a type of early stage breast cancer, according to research published in The New England Journal of Medicine. The Oncotype Dx test predicts how likely hormone receptor positive breast cancer is to return after surgery.

Scientists found that hormone therapy alone was just as effective as a combination of hormone treatment and chemotherapy in women with an intermediate risk of the cancer returning. So these women could potentially be spared chemo and its possible side effects.

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Death rates have taken a dive

Breast cancer mortality rates have fallen by 10% in five years, according to Cancer Research UK figures released in February – with new research, improved treatments and better awareness all playing their part in the big drop. 'It's fantastic to see research saving lives right now, with the rate of women dying from breast cancer dropping year on year,' says the charity's chief executive Sir Harpal Kumar.

3D screening has arrived in the UK

Leading charity Action Cancer has just opened the UK's first 3D breast screening centre in Belfast. While 2D mammograms are generally very safe and reliable, this new technology takes a series of photographs the breast in 3D 'slices', which enables doctors to detect small cancers at an earlier stage – as well as dismiss harmless lumps without the need for further anxiety-provoking tests.

Treatment times could be cut

Six months of treatment could be as effective as 12 for women with a type of early-stage breast cancer, according to a UK trial. Around nine out of 10 women who took the drug Herceptin for six months to treat HER2-positive breast cancer remained cancer-free four years later. The figure was the same for those who'd taken the year-long course.

Scientists have found a way to stop breast cancer spreading

OK, research has only been carried out on mice so far – but it still holds great promise. An amino acid called asparagine plays a critical role in breast cancer spread in mice, according to a study published in Nature. Researchers also found that cutting asparagine out of a mouse's diet halted the spread of the disease. 'So it could be that manipulating levels of asparagine in the body might be used as a way to boost a patient's cancer treatment,' says Professor Greg Hannon, director of Cancer Research UK's Cambridge Institute.

Scientists are addressing overdiagnosis

For every woman whose life is saved by breast cancer screening, three will be diagnosed with a cancer that would never have caused problems. For this reason, scientists are investigating the pros and cons of a risk-based NHS screening programme, in which only women deemed at higher risk are offered mammograms. This scheme could result in 27% fewer 'overdiagnosed' cancers, according to a new study published in JAMA Oncology.

New drugs have been approved

Several key drugs have become newly available for NHS patients in England in the past year. Last November saw the long-awaited approval of palbociclib and ribociclib, both of which slow the growth of advanced breast cancers. And in February, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommended pertuzumab, which is used in combination with other drugs to treat women with HER2-positive breast cancer.

There's more help available after treatment

More than eight in 10 women with breast cancer aren't told about the possibility of developing anxiety and depression, according to a landmark survey by Breast Cancer Care and Mind. However, a third experience anxiety for the first time in their lives following diagnosis and treatment. Both charities are now calling for everyone with breast cancer to be offered mental health support whenever they need it. Thankfully, new support groups and initiatives are popping up all the time. An example? The free Breast Cancer Care App offers support and inspiration to help women move forward after treatment.

My story: how support helped me when I was diagnosed with breast cancer

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