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Thursday, October 10, 2019

How Funding and Innovation is Paving the Way for Breast Cancer Research and Treatment


Douglas Feil is the Chief Programs Officer at National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF). As a part of NBFC’s mission to help patients and inspire hope through early detection, education, and support services, Douglas discusses what the future of breast cancer looks like today and in the future.

With October’s arrival, the display of the pink ribbon brings breast cancer awareness month top of mind. The purpose of this month is to not only remind women to take control of their health and get their mammograms, but to also educate new generations of women on what breast health is and the importance of early detection.

In 1965, philanthropist and cancer advocate Mary Lasker wrote a letter to pioneering cancer 
researcher Sidney Farber. Encouraged by recent breakthroughs in cancer treatment, she wrote, “The iron is hot and this is the time to pound without cessation.” These words echo today, especially to those working to end the suffering of patients and families facing breast cancer.     

The future of breast cancer is like a drive through a lifting fog. There’s a lot we can see in front of us, but finding a cure – that elusive horizon – remains clouded. Breast cancer death rates have declined by more than 40% in the last 30 years thanks to improvements in early detection and treatment, but more than 40,000 women and men still die each year. That’s why the future of breast cancer must be rooted in drastically decreasing the mortality rate in the coming decades through scientific innovation, improved early detection methods, and more targeted therapy options for patients. 

Though it’s difficult to sift through the myriad of recent developments in breast cancer and how they will shape the future, here are a few exciting ones:


Artificial Intelligence   

In the future, medicine and our understanding of how to treat and diagnose breast cancer will quite possibly flow through a pool of artificial intelligence (AI). Cancer is one of the most complex problems of mankind, and what makes it so complex is its ability to trick and deceive our own cells to turn on us and disrupt the very blueprint of our existence. With AI, cancer’s algorithm may have met its match. 

AI and supercomputers have the ability to process large amounts of data and could be used to help find or even predict early cancers before they have spread. It could also be used to help doctors find the most precise treatment for a patient by comparing similarities and differences in other patients, and this can only be done with high-powered computing.   

Immunotherapy 

There is cautious optimism about the future of immunotherapy – a cancer treatment that boosts the immune system to help fight tumors. There’s hope because of stories like former President Jimmy Carter, whose metastatic melanoma went into remission after receiving a breakthrough immunotherapy treatment. Immunotherapy breakthroughs for breast cancer patients have progressed more slowly, but there are some rays of light. 

Last March, a new immunotherapy drug was approved for patients with late-stage, triple-negative breast cancer. The drug blocks the PD-L1 protein on some tumor cells, which triggers the immune system to attack and shrink the tumor. Triple-negative breast cancer patients desperately need more targeted therapies, as they have historically had few options outside of the traditional array of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.  

Breast Density and Improved Screening and Communication 

Breast density has been a hotbed issue for many years. Women with dense breasts are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer, and it’s harder to spot tumors because the tissue is the same color – white – on traditional mammograms. New and improved 3D mammography is helping find tumors earlier, and breast MRIs and ultrasounds have shown to help find cancers masked by dense breast tissue.  

Last March, the FDA proposed an amendment to the Mammography Quality Standards Act of 1992, a law that ensures that mammography facilities across the U.S. are providing quality services. One of the proposals will help improve communications between doctors and patients regarding breast density and increased access to higher-quality screening options for these patients. 

CLEOPATRA Study 

The future is research. We need more well-funded research and more targeted therapies for breast cancer, especially for patients with metastatic disease. 

An end-of-study analysis of the CLEOPATRA trial presented by Sandra M. Swain, MD, FACP, FASCO, Associate Dean for Research Development at Georgetown University Medical Center and the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, Washington, DC at the June 2019 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Conference showed that well over a third of HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer patients who received first-line treatment with pertuzumab combined with trastuzumab/docetaxel were alive after eight years. 

Though this study only impacts the HER2-positive subset of breast cancer patients, it could be a game-changer for thousands diagnosed with this aggressive form.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month

As a donor, here are a few ways to join in the fight and choose a breast cancer charity that is going to steward your funds to the programs you care about:

  1. Get to know more about each charity – look at their websites and understand what differentiates them from other organizations. If you care more about getting women mammograms for diagnostics and services they can receive right now, a charity focused on breast cancer research may not create the desired impact for your dollars. 
  2. Try donating a small amount and see how they handle your donation. Do they tell you the impact of your support? Do they continue to share stories of what your funds are helping to accomplish? Or do you never hear from them again? The thoughtfulness shown to you as a donor can translate to the way they handle their programs.
  3. Check out the organization you are interested in on Charity Navigator, whose mission is to summarize the financial impact as well as the accountability and transparency measures in how charities conduct their business against best practices and standards. Any charity with a 3- or 4-star rating is considered to have met the industry standards of competency and financial accountability. Looking for an organization to support? Charity Navigator's Breast Cancer Awareness Month Hot Topic is a great place to start!

To learn more about the work Douglas and his team at the National Breast Cancer Foundation are doing to support patients with a breast cancer diagnosis in October and throughout the year, please visit nbcf.org.

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