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Cutting-Edge Breast Cancer Therapy

Tailor-Made Treatments
WebMD Feature

There's no doubt that breast cancer treatment has made great strides in recent years. A diagnosis of breast cancer is no longer a death sentence, and the treatment is no longer more painful than the disease. Today, women with breast cancer live longer -- and better -- than ever before. Many are completely cured. And the future looks even brighter, with individualized, cutting-edge therapies being tested and developed right now.

Hitting the Target

Future breast cancer treatments will be a lot smarter about the cells they target. Older approaches -- standard chemotherapy and radiation -- tend to attack all rapidly dividing cells throughout the body. That includes healthy cells lining the hair follicles and the intestines, as well as cancer cells. Yes, the approach can work, but it also causes many of traditional chemotherapy's infamous side effects.

But researchers have learned that breast cancers, like people, are not identical. And they've been using this knowledge to develop more effective, less toxic drugs. By discovering precisely how tumors differ from person to person, they've begun creating treatments that seek out and destroy specific types of cancer cells, and only those cancer cells -- leaving healthy cells alone.

"Why is it that in one patient, breast cancer acts one way -- after chemotherapy, the cancer never recurs -- while in another patient with the same [size and type of tumors], after surgery and chemotherapy, the cancer comes back? It's probably due in large part to fundamental genetic differences in the tumors," says Eric Winer, MD, head of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Breast Oncology Program in Boston.

We've already learned, for example, that some breast cancers rely on the female hormones estrogen and progesterone to grow. In women with these so-called estrogen- and progesterone-receptor (ER and PR) positive cancers, blocking the activity of the hormones can stop growth or even shrink the tumor. Tamoxifen was a breakthrough when it was developed and it’s remained the standard hormone-blocking drug for years. But a newer kind of hormonal medication called aromatase inhibitors -- such as Arimidex and Femara, as well as Aromasin, a similar type of drug -- may be even more effective. While they were originally approved only for cases where Tamoxifen had failed, both Arimidex and Femara are now approved as a first line of defense. Arimidex has also been approved by the FDA to treat not only advanced cancer, but early breast cancer as well.

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