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Breast Cancer Survivors: Managing Treatment Side Effects

Sometimes the cure feels worse than the disease. But new drugs and therapies help reduce the ill effects of chemotherapy and radiation.


Studies are happening now, says Pegram. "We're waiting for clinical trial data to come in to confirm how these drugs work specifically in women who are in menopause as a result of chemotherapy," he says. "From a scientific point of view, it makes sense that they should work. They are known to be highly effective in controlling bone loss in osteoporosis after natural menopause, and in cancers that have metastasized to the bone, so we believe they're likely to be effective in this situation as well."

Some doctors are already prescribing bisphosphonates for women who've experienced menopause as a result of chemotherapy, but Seidman is cautious. "Do we have data telling us that's the right thing to do in these cases? Not yet," he says. "For now, if menopause occurs early, we need to be more attentive to monitoring bone density and making sure that women get sufficient calcium and vitamin D."

New Drugs in the Works for Mouth Sores, Nerve Damage
Doctors call it mucosal toxicity or mucositis, while most patients just call it "mouth sores." Whatever you call it, the damage done by some powerful anticancer agents to the normal cells lining the mouth and throat can make eating dinner an agonizing chore. What's more, says Pegram, "Mouth sores can leave the patient more vulnerable to infection, which is particularly dangerous for people undergoing chemotherapy."

Researchers are now studying a group of compounds called keratinocyte growth factors. These compounds are similar to a protein substance normally made by the body and could prove to be a potential treatment to prevent mouth sores. They encourage the cells lining the mouth and throat to make more cells more quickly to replace the ones destroyed and damaged by chemotherapy.

Late in 2004, the FDA approved one of these drugs, Kepivance, for the treatment of mouth sores caused by high-dose chemotherapy regimens for leukemia, myeloma, and lymphoma. It's "not ready for prime time" in breast cancer treatment yet, says Seidman, but studies are ongoing.

Also in development: a potential remedy for neuropathy (or nerve damage), one of the most debilitating side effects of the commonly used chemotherapy drugs Taxol and Taxotere. "Both drugs can cause nerve damage, which can range from mild numbness to severe pain that can interfere with motor function," says Seidman.

All kinds of remedies have been tried, but none have proven their mettle in clinical trials. Now, researchers are studying a new drug, Tavocept, in the U.S. and abroad for its potential to protect against this neuropathy. The manufacturer, Bionumerik, reports that it's shown promise in phase III clinical trials, and has been granted "fast track" research status by the FDA. "If it works, it would be a real first-in-class drug," Seidman says.

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