New breast cancer care has saved millions
In just three decades, the once monolithic approach to diagnosing and treating breast cancer has become more personalized and less intrusive — a transformation that likely saved millions of lives, experts say.
From testing methods adapted to an individual’s level of risk, better drugs and selective use of chemotherapy, treatment is no longer a one-size-fits-all for some 1.6 million people diagnosed with the disease every year.
“In the past few decades, we have witnessed major changes and improvements in the treatment of breast cancer,” Justin Stebbing, a professor in cancer medicine at Im- perial College London, told AFP.
Despite advances, breast cancer remains the leading cancer killer of women aged 20-59 worldwide. Every year the disease claims more than half a million lives, according to the World Health Organization.
Taking a bite out of this grim toll through better awareness is the goal of October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which will see the Eiffel Tower glow pink, and a fashion show in London starring cancer survivors.
Much has changed since the 1980s, when mastectomy — or surgical removal of the breast — was the go-to treatment for all types of breast cancer.
Today’s approach prefers to tar- get just the tumor, called a lumpectomy.
Not only are better drugs available, but doctors also have a much better understanding of disease variations between patients, requiring different therapies.
The hormone treatment Tamoxifen, for example, effective against 70 percent of breast cancers, has become key in treating pre-menopausal women since trials in the 1980s.
At the same time, an alternative called Anastrozole is effective in women who have already gone through menopause, said Aine McCarthy, a doctor and spokeswoman for charity group Cancer Research UK.
Research in recent years has questioned the central role of chemotherapy in cancer treatment, with a study this week in the New England Journal of Medicine saying some women in the early stages of the disease may not need it.
“In some low-risk patients we know that (chemotherapy) is of no use; in others, it is indispensable,” said Roman Rouzier, a cancer expert at the Institut Curie research center in Paris.
While most developed nations recommend regular testing for women from about the age of 50, some advise earlier examination for those with breast cancer in the family, or a gene mutation that raises their risk.