Understanding Breast Cancer
- When doctors say that breast cancer runs in the family, they weren’t kidding for Texas-area sisters Judith Smith and Dianne Marks.
- Breast cancer is a common cancer that’s been the subject of much research. Many women develop breast cancer every year, but men can develop this cancer, too.
- There are many treatment options for people with this disease, but treatment depends greatly on the specifics of each case, as is true for sisters Judith and Dianne.
In August 2015, the sisters, who’ve always been close, were diagnosed with breast cancer one week apart. Judith, 65, was diagnosed first; she was told she had mixed ductal and lobular carcinoma breast cancer. Dianne, 66, was diagnosed with the disease one week after her sister; she had infiltrating duct carcinoma breast cancer.Read More
“It ended up being a good thing,” Dianne told MD Anderson Cancer Center.
“We were able to share our stories,” Judith added.
Shortly after receiving their diagnoses, the sisters, who are 14 months apart in age, each started treatment.
Sisters Going Through Cancer Treatment Together
Judith started treatment first, going through chemotherapy followed by surgery and radiation. Dianne also had chemotherapy followed by surgery, but her chemo was administered in the clinical trial space. Since they were going through similar treatments, they were able to lean on each other and help the other prepare.
“My treatment was targeted and set up to be what was right for me,” Judith said. “It was pretty rough, but I was still able to work.” (She underwent chemotherapy every three weeks for six months.)
Common side effects of chemotherapy, all of which Judith experienced, include:
- Abdominal pain
She also experienced some more intense side effects during her second phase of chemotherapy, which included mouth sores that made it difficult for her to talk and eat.
Once she finished chemotherapy, Judith was ready for surgery. She was given the option between having a mastectomy, which is surgery to remove the breast, or a lumpectomy, which is surgery to remove cancer or other abnormal tissue from the breast. Judith ultimately decided to undergo a partial mastectomy; only the tumor and the part of her breast immediately surrounding the tumor were removed.
After surgery, Judith went through five more weeks of treatment, but this time she was given daily radiation therapy.
Dianne had a different treatment regimen than her sister, one that was personalized to her breast cancer.
It was determined that the best treatment plan for Dianne was participating in a clinical trial. The clinical trial, known as the LORELEI trial, tested the combination of drugs letrozole (chemotherapy drug) and taselisib to help reduce the size of a person’s breast cancer tumor.
Luckily for Dianne, who took the drugs every day for 16 weeks, her tumor shrank by almost 80%.
After going through chemotherapy, Dianne also had a partial mastectomy followed by radiation, just like her sister. Since she had just watched Judith go through the same thing, Dianne was able to lean on her sister for support.
But Dianne’s treatment wasn’t done just yet. Her surgery and radiation was followed by four additional rounds of chemotherapy to ensure her cancer wouldn’t come back.
Understanding Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is a common cancer that’s been the subject of much research. Many women develop breast cancer every year, but men can develop this cancer, too — though it is more rare, in part, due to the simple fact that they have less breast tissue.
There are many treatment options for people with this disease, but treatment depends greatly on the specifics of each case. It is important to note that the stage and type of Waldon’s breast cancer is unknown. Identifying these specifics means looking into whether the cancerous cells have certain receptors. These receptors — the estrogen receptor, the progesterone receptor and the HER2 receptor — can help identify the unique features of the cancer and help personalize treatment.
“These receptors — I like to imagine them like little hands on the outside of the cell — they can grab hold of what we call ligands, and these ligands are essentially the hormones that may be circulating in the bloodstream that can then be pulled into this cancer cell and used as a fertilizer, as growth support for the cells,” Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, previously told SurvivorNet.
One example of a type of ligand that can stimulate a cancer cell is the hormone estrogen, hence why an estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer will grow when stimulated by estrogen. For these cases, your doctor may offer treatment that specifically targets the estrogen receptor. But for HER2-positive breast cancers, therapies that uniquely target the HER2 receptor may be the most beneficial.
“The good news is there are so many different treatments and options available, and doctors really are attuned to trying to understand patients better, to figure out what are their individual needs,” Dr. Comen said.
Contributing: Abby Seaberg