New Cancer Advancements: Treatment and Testing

Beth Brophy Health Guide
  • It takes a lot of reading to keep current on the latest scientific developments in breast cancer treatment and diagnosis. Here’s a digest of some recent articles of interest:

    Newer and better drugs. Aromatase inhibitors, a new class of drugs that blocks the production of estrogen, have been shown to work better than tamoxifen when used first in treating breast cancer. A study of 8,010 postmenopausal women with hormone- receptor- positive early stage breast cancer who took Femara (letrozole) daily had a lower recurrence rate — 19 percent less — than women taking tamoxifen.

    I have been taking an aromatase inhibitor for about four years, first in a clinical study, and after the study was stopped and unblinded because the results were so positive, by prescription. While I hate the side effects – i.e., initial joint pain, thinning of bones causing osteoporosis (so far I’ve broken an elbow and a toe after minor accidents), weight gain around my middle — from all accounts, it’s a very effective drug. Like all drugs, there are trade-offs. Pain, broken bones, extra weight vs. a recurrence is no contest for me, as much as these side effects trouble me.
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    Cancer-sniffing dogs. This is hard to believe, but according to the New York Times, five dogs in northern California have been specially trained to detect lung cancer in people’s breath, with 99 percent accuracy. For breast cancer, the sniffing dogs correctly identified the presence of cancer 88 percent of the time with almost no false positives, which is a better record than mammograms. Apparently, tumors give off tiny amounts of alkanes and benzene derivatives (healthy tissue does not emit these odors), and that’s what the dogs get a whiff of. Experts have raised some red flags about the study, so the dogs will perform repeat experiments for verification.

    Genetic testing.
    Another article, also in the New York Times, discusses the intrafamily dilemmas caused by genetic testing when some relatives want to be tested and others don’t. This is a particularly sensitive issue in families with a strong history of breast cancer, when some of the siblings want to be tested for the breast cancer genes, for instance, and others refuse. In my family, I was the first person to ever have breast cancer, so I’m pretty sure there are no genetic factors at work; however, I still worry about passing some bad genes to my two teenage daughters. I hope by the time they are adults, there will be a cure.
Published On: January 23, 2006