Doctors discuss progress in breast cancer treatments

According to the American Cancer Society, when breast cancer is detected early, in the localized stage, the survival rate is 99 percent.
Published: Oct. 24, 2022 at 6:25 PM EDT
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SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - According to the American Cancer Society, when breast cancer is detected early, in the localized stage, the survival rate is 99 percent. The earlier it’s caught, the better treatment options there are, including breast-conserving surgery, where only the cancer and surrounding tissue are removed.

Great progress has been made in breast cancer treatment, with a focus on targeted therapies, including drugs that zero-in on cancer cells, along with minimally invasive surgeries like a lumpectomy, where only a portion of the breast is removed.

“We’ve come a long, long way when you think that, for almost 100 years, we were doing a radical mastectomy - removing the breast, the muscle, the skin, all the lymph nodes which was disabling, debilitating, and disfiguring…And now many patients with breast cancer are able to have a small lumpectomy take some medication and that may be it,” said Dr. Holly Mason, chief of breast surgery at Baystate Health.

Mason told Western Mass News that, typically, women under 70 who opt for a lumpectomy also receive radiation to kill any stray cancer cells that remain. As treatment improves, so do rates of recurrence.

“Where the great strides really are the rates of distant spread, so recurrence elsewhere in the body, and as our medication’s get better as our medications are more targeted for the individual tumor, those recurrence rates are lower, survival rates are getting better,” Mason explained.

Rates of local recurrence - the cancer coming back in the breast - are improved too. With a lumpectomy and radiation, there’s a four to five percent chance that the cancer will come back in the breast over 10 years. With a mastectomy, there’s only a two percent chance. The earlier cancer is found, the less treatment you’ll need, but the pandemic disrupted preventive care, including mammograms, and Mason is seeing the adverse effects.

“We’re still seeing patients who are off schedule by two or three years because of the pandemic and, unfortunately, we are seeing some larger tumors because of that,” Mason noted.

Mason said those who are diagnosed with breast cancer should build a strong support system, ask their cancer team questions about their treatment, and above all, advocate for themselves, but she said there is good reason to remain hopeful.

“I always tell my patients, I use the term ‘tools in the toolbox.’ We have so many more tools now than we did when I started back in 2000,” Mason noted.

If you have a family history of cancer, you may have a genetic risk of developing cancer in the future. Baystate Health provides genetic testing if you’re referred by your provider.