Breast Cancer In the News: Exercise, One-Step Radiation, Clean Margins and More
Amazing how fascinating the subject of breast cancer becomes once you have it, huh? It’s a passion, albeit an unwanted one.
A passion for food leads to overflowing shelves of cookbooks and an addiction to the Food Channel. Passion for the outdoors might translate to Vasque hiking boots and a garage packed with Mountain Hardwear gear. But that uncomfortable passion we have for breast cancer? It leads to reading. To going online to research each new term that we hear in the oncologist’s office. To setting up a Google news alert for the search terms “breast cancer.” And to feeling your body go on alert when, standing at the sink washing the breakfast dishes, you suddenly hear the word “cancer” in among the jumble of words pouring out of the radio.
Cancer in the daily news is always exciting. We know cancer news is seldom allowed space among the reports of suicide bombings, Presidential debates, and the endless stream of ads that fill the airwaves during morning drive time. And when it is, it’s either important (results of the clinical trial that drove millions of women off hormone replacement drugs), or titillating (a paparazzi-like new-celebrity diagnosis).
But there’s plenty happening in cancer world every day. None of it makes the evening news; but much of it makes its way online to Science Daily, “your source for the latest research news;” PubMed, a service of the National Institutes of Health; and similar Web-based communication tools.
In creating SharePosts here three or four times a week, I monitor these research sites regularly. I seldom find news that’s going to take your world by storm; much of what I read contains sentences that begin something like this: “Using unconditional logistic regression analyses, we calculated odds ratios (ORs)…” But I often find interesting snippets, something that makes me think “Huh. Really. Who knew?” They’re not big enough on their own for an entire SharePost, but certainly worth mentioning. Here’s a sample of what I’ve been reading lately:
• Exercise, exercise, exercise… A recently concluded study involving researchers from both Penn State University and the National Cancer Institute puts some hard numbers to the relationship between exercise and breast cancer. Women who are “highly physically active,” including women who do heavy physical work, have a 30% to 40% reduced lifetime risk of getting breast cancer compared to inactive women. And this reduction in risk isn’t affected by body mass index (how overweight you are), menopausal status, or family history of breast cancer. Bottom line: Being physically active is an actual breast cancer preventive, something you can control. Try to burn a few more calories today.
• A single dose of radiation? Experimental “one-step” breast cancer treatment is currently being pioneered on women in Great Britain and Canada. “Intraoperative radiation therapy” delivers a 30-minute dose of concentrated radiation directly to the site of the removed tumor during lumpectomy surgery, an amount “biologically equivalent” to the radiation normally delivered over the course of several weeks.
Delivering radiation this way prevents the possible skin, heart, and lung issues involved in standard radiation treatment. To say nothing of eliminating the tedious daily drive, and lost work time. Confirmation that this treatment is as effective as normal radiation won’t be available for 18 months, but researchers say it looks promising.
• Clean margins? When you’re having a lumpectomy, that’s what you hope for: no cancer cells in the tissue left after the tumor is removed. But it’s at least a few days post-surgery till you get that information; till you know if you have to go back under the knife.
A cutting-edge new microscope that offers instant analysis of tissue samples taken during a lumpectomy may be able to tell surgeons right then and there if they have clean margins. And that same microscope is able to analyze needle biopsy samples immediately, so the radiologist can potentially stop after a single sample, rather than complete the current standard of “drilling” for six to eight samples. Bottom line: More development needed before use of the microscope becomes widespread. But it looks promising.
• A small step on the path to a cure: You probably know that estrogen promotes breast cancer. But how? Understanding the exact relationship betwsen estrogen and breast cancer would mean progress toward cure or prevention for the up to 70% of us who have estrogen-receptive breast cancer.
Australian scientists have discovered an oncogene (a gene that promotes cancer growth), MYB, that’s actually turned on by estrogen. It’s usually mutated genes that are responsible for cancer; but MYB is a healthy gene. And when estrogen tells it to start working, it can turn normal breast cells into cancerous ones. The goal: block the action of MYB. Prognosis: “Many years of hard work,” according to scientists. But MYB’s discovery may be an important start.
• Embryo selection for the BRCA1 gene: United Press International reports that two British couples want to use an embryo selection technique to screen for the BRCA1 gene, which runs in their families. (BRCA1 is a mutated gene that’s known to be highly predictive for breast cancer.) After in vitro fertilization, while the embryo is at the 8-cell stage, one cell would be removed and examined for the presence of BRCA1. Then, only unaffected embryos would be implanted into the mother’s uterus.
Personally, this sends a chill down my spine. But I suppose it’s not much different that using amniocentesis to reveal Down’s Syndrome. It’s a brave new world out there… I’m just grateful that my childbearing years are past, and I don’t need to make the kind of searing personal decisions about pregnancy and childbirth that prospective mothers today are faced with.