Robert A. Cohen, MD, is board certified in surgery and fellowship trained in surgical oncology. He specializes in breast surgery and is a member of the Inova Medical Group’s Breast Cancer Program, the official breast cancer awareness partner of the Washington Redskins. Read Dr. Cohen’s profile.
Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis can be frightening. However, as I tell my patients, most women live long, healthy lives in spite of their cancer. In fact, 89.7 percent of women with breast cancer survive five years or more after their diagnosis, according to the latest data from the National Cancer Institute.
Indeed, more women are surviving breast cancer than ever before, thanks to targeted treatments designed specially for each patient.
Switching Cancer Off
Breast cancer treatment is no longer one-size-fits-all. We mix and match treatment options, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and hormone therapy. We tailor our treatment plans to each of our patients depending on their age, health, tumor size, tumor type, and what their wishes and values are.
One of the biggest advances in cancer treatment has been a better understanding of the different pathways that turn cancer cells on. I think of it like electricity. If you want to turn off a light, you could turn off the switch on the wall. You could cut the cord between the wall and the lamp. You could take out the bulb.
Our ultimate goal in treating breast cancer is to understand what turns on a woman’s cancer cells. That’s different for each patient. But once we identify the cellular pathways causing the cancer, we can figure out exactly which steps along the path we need to attack.
In all areas of cancer treatment, we have become more targeted. Instead of surgically removing the entire breast, we can often remove just the tumor and surrounding tissue. Improvements in technology allow us to apply radiation to a smaller area of the breast.
We’re also better at distinguishing between different types of tumors, so we can choose and use the chemotherapy and other medications that are most likely to work.
For example, about 25 percent of women with breast cancer test positive for a protein called HER2 that makes their breast cells divide in an uncontrolled way. We can now test for that protein. If a patient tests positive, we prescribe drugs specifically designed to block the action of HER2.
Using these targeted treatments is a win-win. Our success rates our better, and women experience fewer side effects.
Expecting To Survive
There’s a lot of information about breast cancer out there, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But too often, people overlook one of the most important messages: Most women with breast cancer survive and do well. That’s our expectation, our hope and our goal.
Learn more information about breast cancer tests and treatments at the Inova Breast Cancer Program.