Can These Developments Make Breast Cancer Non-Existent?

Breast cancer kills more women every year than any other form of cancer. Despite this, survival rates are high. In England, scientists found that eight out 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer would survive for at least for five years. If caught at its earliest stage the survival rate for breast cancer is 93%. At stage one it is 88%. There are six types of treatment that have been proven effective such as hormone therapy, surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Angelina Jolie made international headlines for her preventative double mastectomy.

The surgery, which removed both her breasts, reduced her chance of contracting breast cancer from 87% to under 5%. The only problem is that preventative mastectomies are expensive, typically costing seven to 10 thousand dollars. The genetic screening Jolie underwent costs another 2-3 thousand dollars. And preventative mastectomies are a major surgery that can be avoided. Women who use once-a-day drugs such as tamoxifen can reduce the chance of breast cancer by 50%. Scientists have also found that doubling the treatment period of tamoxifen will decrease the recurrence of breast cancer in women by 50% This is doubly beneficial as tamoxifen is a low cost generic drug that is widely available.

The outlook is a positive one. A hospital in Japan is applying heavy ion radiotherapy to breast cancer. The treatment differs from traditional radiation therapy in that while the gamma rays used in traditional therapy become weaker as they penetrate human tissue, the heavy ion radiation remains potent. However, research has found that radiation treatments used to treat breast cancer have increased the likelihood of heart problems later on in life. It is worth noting that this research was conducted using traditional radiation therapy instead of the heavy ion radiation. 

If successful, heavy ion radiotherapy would amplify the damage done to the cancer cells as well as increase the cancer cell’s difficulty in repairing itself. Furthermore the energy afflicted region can be confined more closely to the tumor. One downside is an enhancement in the nuclear fragmentation process. The availability of heavy ions is also a concern as only three facilities in the world produce them, though this will undoubtedly increase if the research is proven effective. 

Another potential treatment is COX-2 inhibitors. Cyclooxygenase-2 is an enzyme that is overabundant in cases of breast cancer. COX-2 inhibitors are already used as a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, common over the counter medication such as aspirin or ibuprofen. COX-2 inhibitors themselves have a checkered history. COX-2 inhibitors were shown to cause heart attacks and strokes in recipients. However the short-term use of COX-2 inhibitors was shown to reduce tumor activity in patients with the additional benefit of substantial pain relief. When used on patients who do not have risks of heart and stroke the potential benefit of COX-2 inhibitors to treat breast cancer is high.

These developments suggest hope for the future. Already high treatment rates could become even higher. Eradicating cancer altogether remains a pipe dream. But the advancements in breast cancer research mean that the days of one of the most common afflictions for women may finally be numbered.

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James Monteith

James recently completed his MA in Political Science from Carleton University. Previously he earned an Honours BSc from the University of Toronto in Biology. His interests include international relations, drug policy and development.

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