This research aims to determine new ways of treating breast cancer and to improve our current therapies.
After diagnosis, breast cancer patients are offered a range of treatments to destroy tumours and stop cancer coming back. As each person’s breast cancer is different, the treatments that will work best for them will not always be the same. The breast care team and laboratory staff will carry out tests to see exactly which therapies and drugs will be most appropriate.
Though the treatment path varies, the majority of patients receive some of the following treatments:
Surgery to remove the tumour from the breast.
Where tumours are large this may involve removal of the whole breast, known as a mastectomy. Some patients will decide to have reconstructive surgery, such as reduction to balance breast or implants, either at the same time or later on.
For smaller tumours doctors will often recommend a ‘lumpectomy’ where only the tumour and a small amount of the surrounding tissue are removed.
During surgery the doctor will also check to see whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, glands that are found under the armpit.
Radiotherapy to destroy any cancer cells that may remain after surgery or to reduce the size of a tumour before surgery.
This involves directing a beam of radiation to target the area around where the tumour has been removed and killing the cancer cells. Additionally, radiotherapy is used to treat tumours inside the bones that have spread from the breast.
Chemotherapy to destroy breast cancer cells in any part of the body.
These drugs are circulated by the bloodstream, destroying fast growing cells such as cancer cells. However, they also kill rapidly dividing cells such as those in hair, skin and the lining of the stomach, leading to side-effects such as hair loss and nausea.
Drug treatments to prevent cancer coming back and to destroy it if it does.
Anti-hormone drugs which stop the hormone oestrogen fuelling breast cancer cell growth. Drugs such as tamoxifen block oestrogen from attaching to cancer cells and kick starting growth, while others, like aromatase inhibitors, can be used to stop the body making the hormone, thereby starving the cancer.
Targeted treatments which work by attacking a specific part of the cancer cells leading to its destruction. These include:
Herceptin, which stops molecules called HER2 attaching to breast cancer cells and fuelling their growth. About 15 per cent of breast cancers respond to this drug.
Lapatanib, which stops molecules called kinases, inside certain types of breast cancer cells, sending messages telling them to grow.
While many treatments are effective, they can have short and long term side-effects and many patients will develop resistance, finding their drugs no longer work. It’s vital we find out why this happens as well as ways to overcome these problems and ensure patients have the best possible quality of life. We also need to develop new drugs; alternatives for people for whom current drugs won’t work.