Since 1985, October has been recognized as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Still, every 2 minutes, a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer in the US. To fight against these odds, it’s crucial to raise awareness and spread knowledge regarding early diagnosis and treatment options. This month also provides an opportunity to show support for the over 3.8 million breast cancer survivors across America and many more around the globe and reflect on how far we have come in terms of detection, treatment, and advancements toward a cure.
Since the early 1990s, mortality has sharply declined while the incidence of breast cancer has remained relatively stable. This holds true whether one looks at localized, regional, or distant breast cancer, suggesting that the main reason for the decline in mortality is due to improved treatment (pharmaceutical, surgical, or others), rather than better and earlier diagnosis.
This statement is not meant to deny the importance of annual mammograms and early diagnosis. One in eight women in the United States is projected to be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. However, the five-year survival rate is 99% when caught in early localized stages. The overall five-year survival rate, which is now 91%, was only about 77% in 1985.
Source: American Cancer Society
I see two main factors contributing to this improvement and providing hope for the future:
1. Tumor Profiling:
Previously, doctors decided on cancer treatment based on the tumor’s stage (localized, regional, or distant) and whether it was responsive to hormonal treatments or not. Scientists are now increasingly discovering that one-size-fits-all is not the best approach to treating cancer, including breast cancer.
Tumors can now be profiled, looking for specific genes within the tumor to help select the most appropriate treatment path. The legendary and groundbreaking drug Herceptin, specifically designed for tumors characterized by high expression of HER2/neu proliferation genes, was an early vanguard of the power of this approach.
2. Targeted Therapies:
Monoclonal antibodies, antibody-drug conjugates, kinase inhibitors, and increasingly also immuno-therapy and potentially CAR-T and gene-therapy approaches are providing breakthroughs with hopes for continued advancements in many cancer types, including breast cancer.
The progress mentioned in this article is by no means an exhaustive list. There are also improvements in diagnostics, surgery, and radiation therapy, just to name a few. According to ClinicalTrials.gov, there are currently 2,949 active clinical trials in breast cancer alone.
Reflecting on Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we should recognize how far we have come and be hopeful for an even better future. We live in a golden age of cancer breakthroughs.