Is the fight against breast cancer improving?

Mary Cianfrocca, DO, specializes in breast cancer medical oncology at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert.

Question: I recently heard the fight against breast cancer has been improving over the years. Is this true?

Answer: The American Cancer Society reported this week that breast cancer death rates declined almost 40 percent between 1989 and 2015. This means about 322,600 deaths were averted, which is very significant news. 

There are several potential reasons for this decline. Throughout that time period, there were numerous advances in treatment options for women who have breast cancer. In the ‘80s, doctors began to use chemotherapy after surgery. This practice was refined over the years, helping to prevent breast cancer from returning after surgery. Treatment options have also advanced to include a variety of hormonal therapies and targeted therapies.

Hormone therapy prevents female hormones (including estrogen) from increasing the growth of breast cancers that have estrogen or progesterone receptors. This therapy can involve taking drugs by mouth or injection, or having surgery to remove the ovaries if a woman has not reached menopause.

Targeted therapies are drug treatments that target certain features of the cancer. For example, Herceptin is a type of biologic therapy that targets breast cancer cells that produce too much of a protein called HER2. This protein is over-produced in 20 to 30 percent of breast cancers. Another potential reason for lower death rates is that women are undergoing breast cancer screenings. Mammograms allow doctors to try to detect breast cancer at an earlier stage. This means there is a better prognosis because it is more treatable. There have also been major improvements in imaging services which allow doctors to better detect breast cancer at an earlier age.

Ongoing research plays a major role in advancements in treatment. At Banner MD Anderson, patients who qualify can participate in numerous cutting-edge trials. 

While this decline in death rates is excellent news, breast cancer still affects one in eight American women. For those facing the disease, there are many medical experts working hard to find a cure -- as well as new ways to treat and prevent breast cancer.