The world of breast cancer research, highly supported by society thanks to initiatives like Pink October, is continually evolving. And 2015 brought all kinds of breast cancer news –some “news you can use” right now; some offering hope for the future. Here are the highlights of The Year in Breast Cancer, 2015.
The battle over mammogram screening guidelines continued this year, with both the American Cancer Society and federal government weighing in. Bottom line: new guidelines are aimed at preventing aggressive diagnoses leading to over-treatment, encouraging women to start their mammograms later in life – and to have fewer of them.
Everyone agrees, though: these guidelines aren’t one size fits all. For best results, women should speak to their doctor to develop their own best screening schedule.
“Has it come back?”
This is the greatest fear we survivors endure: will my cancer return? And if it does, will I catch it in time?
Over the years there’ve been many attempts to develop an accurate test designed to catch a breast cancer recurrence in its early stages, when it’s potentially more treatable. It looks like a simple blood test might do just that: researchers claim that the cMethDNA test is up to 95 percent accurate at identifying breast cancer recurrence – within as little as two weeks after it begins.
The test isn’t available to patients yet; it’s undergoing additional, higher-level trials. But 2015 could signal the start of what will eventually become a critical tool in breast cancer treatment.
“I’m tired of taking pills…”
As a breast cancer survivor, you typically find yourself taking drugs for years after treatment: tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors, bisphosphonates to preserve bone density, perhaps sleep aids or depression medications… To say nothing of vitamins and supplements, especially vitamin D and calcium to battle the bone loss that often comes with breast cancer treatment.
Thanks to a 2015 comprehensive meta-analysis of existing calcium studies, however, researchers have recently concluded that calcium supplements – and/or increasing calcium intake via diet – does nothing to prevent bone fractures in people over the age of 50.
So, there’s one daily pill you can take off your list_Read more:_
Help with an uncomfortable subject
Painful sex: It’s a fact of life for hundreds of thousands of breast cancer survivors. Treatment robs your body of the estrogen it needs to keep your vagina soft and “receptive,” resulting in pain with sex ranging from mildly uncomfortable to excruciating.
This year researchers discovered the simplest of solutions: lidocaine, typically used to temporarily numb skin; think getting stitches, or a Novocain shot at the dentist. After applying lidocaine to the “vulvar vestibule” just prior to sex, women who’d reported intercourse earning a score of 8 out of 10 on the pain index said that the lidocaine reduced their pain to an easy 1.
Not all the news is good
The American Cancer Society released a report in November with discouraging news: the breast cancer rate for black women rose sharply between 2008 and 2012. And, since black women with breast cancer are more likely to die of the disease than white, Asian, or Hispanic women, this means the black community will lose more mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters than ever.
Help for younger women
One of the long-term side effects of chemotherapy can be the permanent shutdown of a woman’s reproductive system. For women past their active childbearing years, that’s no big deal. But for women hoping for children, it’s devastating.
Researchers this year discovered that the drug Zoladex added to a woman’s regular chemo regimen can decrease the likelihood she’ll stop menstruating; and increase her chance of successfully having children. Rather than going through the expense and uncertainty of trying to freeze eggs, younger women may soon be able to dodge the chemo bullet of early menopause, and preserve their fertility.
ASCO 2015 highlights
The annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncologists always results in a flurry of research news. This year’s meeting, held last June in Chicago, offered special hope for metastatic breast cancer survivors.
Looking forward: 2016
What’s on the horizon for breast cancer breakthroughs in 2016? Here are my predictions:
•The genetics of tumors: Researchers will continue to make strides towards identifying specific traits of each woman’s cancer, and fine-tuning treatment based on those traits. Breast cancer treatment will become more and more personalized.
•Cold caps: This ingenious treatment to prevent hair loss during chemo will steadily gain credence in the medical community, with more hospitals and cancer centers offering women the option to keep their hair.
•DCIS: The movement to declassify a common breast cancer diagnosis, DCIS, will continue. About 25% of all breast cancer diagnoses are DCIS; yet research shows that DCIS is often benign, and might never spread if left untreated.
Research shows that women seek less aggressive, less dangerous, lest costly (and hopefully just as effective) treatment when the word “cancer” is removed from their diagnosis. The suggested new term for DCIS? IDLE, indolent lesions of epithelial origin.
Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel_, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network. _
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.