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Breast Cancer Health Center

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New Ways to Treat Breast Cancer

A new generation of drugs and treatment options gives patients new hope in the fight against breast cancer.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

In the not so distant past, a diagnosis of breast cancer frequently yielded a standard prescription: tumor removal via mastectomy or sometimes lumpectomy, usually followed by radiation and sometimes chemotherapy.

While the approach clearly worked for some women, it didn't work for all -- leaving doctors puzzled.

"It was difficult to understand why some women thrived after breastcancercancer treatment while others perished," says Julia Smith, MD, director of the Lynne Cohen Breast Cancer Preventive Care Program at the NYU Cancer Institute in New York City.

The reason became increasingly clear, say experts, when they stopped looking at why a woman wasn't responding to treatment, and instead examined why the cancer didn't respond.

What they discovered: The concept of tumor biology. In short, not all breast tumors are alike -- or respond to the same treatment.

"We realized breast cancer isn't just one disease -- it's at least three different diseases, each requiring a different treatment approach," says Cliff Hudis, MD, chief of breast cancer medicine service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

These differences have now morphed into a full-fledged treatment approach: target-specific drugs aimed not just at killing cancer cells, but in some instances, disrupting and dismantling the entire tumor-creating mechanism. Usually paired with more traditional treatments such as lumpectomy -- and sometimes radiation -- these new treatments are helping to ensure that even the most stubborn cancers now have a chance to be cured.

Targeting Breast Cancers

Among those benefiting most from this approach are women with tumors identified as HER2 positive.

Affecting one in every three women who develop breast cancer, Smith says HER2-positive tumors occur when a genetic glitch causes an overproduction of the HER2 protein. This protein promotes the growth of cancer cells.

"This is a very aggressive cancer and there was little we could offer in terms of treatment," says Smith.

The target-specific drug that changed all that is Herceptin -- a treatment that attaches itself to the cancer-promoting proteins and slows or shuts down production.

Hudis tells WebMD that Herceptin not only increases survival rates but also reduces the likelihood of tumor recurrence.

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