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It is an exciting time in the treatment of breast cancer. Whilst there is still no cure, there have been new developments and treatment breakthroughs that mean the outlook for a person with secondary breast cancer is much more positive than it was just a few years ago.
Whilst the survival for secondary breast cancer has only improved modestly, the quality of that survival has changed beyond all recognition.
Professor of Medical Oncology, Rob Coleman describes his early experiences with breast cancer patients: “When I started in oncology women with breast cancer would be spending long periods of time in bed, they would have pain, they would break their bones, they would have problems with breathlessness. The quality of life was pretty miserable.
Now, although life expectancy is shortened, most patients can remain at work. They can do things with their family. They are managed as outpatients and do not need to remain in hospital.”
This improved outlook is due to new drug therapies which have been effective in keeping women with breast cancer healthier for longer. For example, Herceptin, is an antibody that binds to a particular type of breast cancer, known as HER 2. Treating patients with Herceptin has been shown to improve the outcome of chemotherapy, keeping the cancer in remission for longer and extending the length of a patient’s life.
Herceptin is the first of many targeted therapies that will become available in the next 5-10 years.
Lapatinib has been recently approved for use in the United Kingdom and Europe. It is a targeted therapy, similar to Herceptin, that is given in a tablet form and is used when Herceptin has failed.
Eribulin is a new chemotherapy agent, known as a cytotoxic, administered intravenously. It can be used when other chemotherapy drugs have stopped working.
All new therapies for advanced breast cancer are dependent on clinical trials, as explained by Professor Rob Coleman: “Clinical trials are absolutely essential if we are going to continue to make progress in the management of secondary breast cancer. If there is an opportunity, it is important to encourage patients to at least think about taking part in a clinical trial.
The reason that the prognosis of breast cancer is so much better now than it was 20 years ago is because literally hundreds of thousands of women over the years have taken part in clinical trials and we have learnt how to treat the cancer better.”
Professor Rob Coleman, MBBS, MD, FRCP (London & Edinburgh)
Honorary Consultant, Weston Park Hospital
Professor of Medical Oncology, Weston Park Hospital, Sheffiled
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