Cancer research is a long, slow grind. Scientists and doctors have spent centuries examining the disease — and it remains a killer. But each year builds on the ones before to bring us closer to that ever-elusive cure, as well as developing huge strides in treatment. Here are some of the top research breakthroughs of 2016.
Hope for triple negative patients
Women with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) find themselves with limited treatment options. With cancer that’s estrogen/progesterone-negative as well as HER2-negative, neither traditional hormone therapy (tamoxifen, aromatase inhibitors) nor Herceptin will be effective at reducing risk of recurrence, as they are in women with more responsive tumors.
But a new chemotherapy drug, eribulin mesylate (brand name Halaven), has shown great promise in phase III clinical trials, which means it’s ready to be tested for TNBC patients with stage IV (metastatic) cancer. Next step: if its predicted effectiveness in stage IV patients is realized, Halaven may become the drug of choice for first-line treatment.
One of cancer research’s biggest buzzwords this year has been immunotherapy, a way to replace toxic chemotherapy drugs by teaching the body’s own cells, via genetic engineering, to recognize and fight cancer.
Over 3,400 clinical trials down the years have centered on moving immunotherapy research forward. And this year, one particular trial resulted in complete remission in 27 of 29 leukemia patients — using a protocol that could be easily translated to breast cancer treatment in the future.
Double mastectomy isn’t a cure-all
Except for women with BRCA genetic mutations, most double mastectomies carried out on breast cancer patients remove one breast with a tumor, and one healthy breast. Many women undergo what’s called a prophylactic double mastectomy for peace of mind, mistakenly believing that removing both breasts will eliminate their risk of recurrence.
A new study out of Duke University examined women’s satisfaction with either a single or double mastectomy, and found that those choosing to have just one breast removed reported higher physical and psychological well-being several years after surgery than those who’d chosen a double mastectomy.
Proton therapy is a new, more focused form of the traditional radiation used to eradicate any cancer cells remaining in the breast after a lumpectomy. Proton therapy uses computer guidance to deliver radiation only to the site of the tumor, sparing any surrounding tissue and thus greatly reducing side effects.
This past year saw more and more cancer centers offering proton therapy to breast cancer patients. Though proof of its long-term effectiveness is still far in the future, it’s something to consider if you’re facing radiation therapy. One note: it is expensive, and may not be covered by insurance. It's also available at only a limited number of facilities.
Diet can reduce breast cancer risk
A University of Michigan team this year compiled a meta-analysis of 56 studies examining the effect on patient health of various diets. One conclusion of the analysis is that a high-fat Mediterranean diet reduces a woman’s risk of breast cancer by 57 percent.
And when you eat might be nearly as important as your diet’s components. A study published in August reveals that breast cancer survivors who fast less than 13 hours per night are 36 percent more likely to experience a breast cancer recurrence than those who go at least 13 hours between their last food at night and their first bite the next morning.
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