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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.

Targeting the Future

If doctors are right, the future of breast cancer treatment may involve drugs that don't target tumor cells at all, but instead work to disrupt the support system that helps them grow.

In a process known as angiogenesis (creation of new blood vessels), cancer cells utilize growth factors made naturally in the body to develop a blood supply that enables them to thrive. New drugs known as "antiangiogenisis" treatments interfere with that process and, says Smith, "Cut off tumor growth in its embryonic stage."

So far, at least one drug -- Avastin -- is accomplishing this in some lung and colon cancers. Hudis says clinical trials have also yielded impressive results in breast cancer, although the drug is not yet approved for breast cancer treatment.

"What's really exciting about this method is that it is generic enough in its approach to work for all types of cancer," says Hudis.

Extreme Cures

In addition to target-specific drugs, new ways to use standard breast cancer treatments have resulted in still more treatment advances. Two of the newest hit extremes that cover both ends of the healing spectrum.

In line with the minimalist approach to breast conservation -- treatment that includes lumpectomy over mastectomy -- comes a minimal form of radiation therapy. One such technique is known as MammoSite.

Unlike traditional treatment, which blankets the entire breast with radiation from an outside source, MammoSite uses a process known as brachytherapy - the delivery of radiation direct to the site of the tumor bed from inside the body.

Dan Chase, MS, DABR, a board-certified radiological physicist at the Thompson Cancer Survival Center in Knoxville, Tenn., explains.

"We enter the same cavity where the lump was removed and insert a small, soft balloon attached to a thin catheter (tube)," says Chase.

The balloon is inflated, he says, and a computer-controlled machine delivers the radiation down the tube into the balloon. Here, it acts on adjacent tissue. The total radiation exposure is similar to what would be traditionally administered, but in a much more confined space.

Treatment time is also shorter; just 10 minutes, twice a day for a total of five days. That's compared with five days of treatment per week -- for up to seven weeks -- with traditional radiation therapy.

As good as it sounds, however, Smith cautions that a lack of long-term data means treatment should be confined to a clinical trial.

And while trials are ongoing, treatment is also being offered nationwide by many facilities; Chase says women should think twice before saying yes.

"In some universities partial breast radiation is thought of as the next big thing in breast cancer treatment. But until we know more, women should get a second opinion before accepting this treatment," says Chase.

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