Mary J. Wilkinson, MD, is a medical oncologist. She is board- certified in medical oncology, internal medicine and hematology and has a special interest in breast cancer.

A breast cancer diagnosis is always unwelcome news, but new advances in detection and treatment are leading to improvements in cancer care and quality of life. Here are three areas to watch.

Targeted Therapy

Breast cancer comes in 4 different types, each with its own unique subtypes. So why treat them all with the same medications?

Thanks to advances in genetic testing, we can now identify many of the specific genes or proteins that allow a particular cancer type to grow and spread. Then we can choose drugs specifically designed to target those faulty genes or proteins. Not only are those medications often quite effective, they tend to have fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy.

Research continues to identify the drivers for different subtypes of breast cancer. We’re getting better and better at targeting breast cancer therapy all the time as new genetic tests and treatments become available.


Immunotherapy is another exciting development in breast cancer treatment. As its name suggests, immunotherapy stimulates a patient’s own immune system to destroy cancer cells.

Over the last decade, immunotherapy medications have shown a lot of promise for treating a number of cancer types, including some breast cancers. And researchers are currently testing several new types of immunotherapies to treat breast cancer.

Some of that research is exploring whether immunotherapies could help women with triple-negative breast cancer. This type of cancer doesn’t respond to hormonal therapy or to medications that target HER2 receptors. If research demonstrates that immunotherapy is effective against triple-negative breast cancer, it would be a welcome addition to our cancer-fighting arsenal.

Detecting Cancer

Researchers are also finding new methods to monitor responses to treatment and to screen for recurrence. One promising new test is called a liquid tumor biopsy. It’s actually not a biopsy at all, but a blood test that can detect tiny pieces of DNA from cancer cells in the bloodstream.

Though more research is needed, this test might one day help us fine-tune cancer treatment.

For instance, we might typically give a patient 20 weeks of chemotherapy for a certain type of breast cancer. But if the liquid tumor biopsy shows no evidence of cancer after 10 weeks, we might decide to stop treatment sooner.

For women facing a breast cancer diagnosis, these new research developments offer even more reasons to be optimistic.

Want to learn more about the latest findings in breast cancer screening, treatment and survivorship? Join us for a free breast cancer symposium on Saturday, October 21, 2017, at the Inova Center for Personalized Health in Fairfax. Register now for more details.

Discover how Inova tackles Breast Cancer at


  1. Georgette on February 1, 2018 at 7:02 am

    I am a primary care physician being treated for breast cancer with paclitaxel. I read with interest the presentation at the 2016 ACSO MEETING concerning preventing neuropathy with cryotherapy. Is there a way to obtain or construct the hypothermia mitts and slippers used in the study?

    • InovaNewsroom on February 28, 2018 at 10:37 am

      Hello Georgette,
      There are mitts and slippers available on line through Amazon. Some patients have used frozen peas or ice in bags.
      Thank you for your question,

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