Modern breast cancer treatments provide new answers to disease

by Michael Eng, Columnist

October is breast cancer awareness month. Breast cancer will likely strike someone you know — one in eight women, to be precise.  

Although a myriad of treatments are available now, the Edwin Smith Papyrus from Ancient Egypt circa 1500 BCE, described cauterization, or burning, as the preferred treatment for breast cancer, citing it as “untreatable.”  When the 19th century rolled around with improvements in hygiene, the average life expectancy soared, and serious effort went into trying to find a cure for the disease. In 1882, surgeon William Stewart Halsted performed the first successful mastectomy and by the 1970s, researchers perfected lumpectomies, where only the tumor and surrounding tissue were removed.

One of the most invasive and effective forms of treatment is a mastectomy, which is a process that involves the excision of lymph nodes, breast tissue, and chest muscles. Generally, patients choose mastectomies after extensive consideration, due to the scar tissue, delayed healing, and overall symptoms.

Another form of treatment is chemotherapy, with blocks the spread of fast growing cancer cells, and is usually administered through a vein or pill.  Since it is not a targeted treatment and affects the entire body, chemotherapy is a way to guarantee that the cancer cells are killed, even if it spreads somewhere else.  However, due to its nonspecific nature, many living cells are usually killed as well. Often times, chemotherapy is given before a surgery to decrease the amount of tissue the surgeon needs to extract.  Therefore, this treatment is usually reserved for late stage cancer.

“You have other tissues in your body that are also turning over and growing like the lining of your stomach and your hair follicles,” stated cancer center medical director and radiation oncologist Dr. Nam Cho of Valley Medical Center. “[That] leads to a lot of the side effects that women get with the chemotherapy.”

Breast cancer shows few discernable symptoms and is usually caught through regular scanning, especially in families where the disease is prevalent. Screenings range from x-raying the breasts to a scan for lumps or unusual skin deformities.

Palo Alto Medical Foundation Pediatrician Jane Chen stated that the occurrence of the cancer in children is rare, but when it happens, many of the same treatment procedures are taken.

“They don’t want to give too much of the cancer drugs, but they also don’t want to give too little, so they have a protocol based on how big the child is,” Chen said.

If caught early, a less invasive treatment like a partial mastectomy, lumpectomy or radiation can be performed.

In the future, the spread of cancer could be tested by something as simple as a blood test.

“I think one of the things we’re really excited for are ways to be able to detect cancer […] in a way that’s even more molecularly accurate,” stated Dr. Cho. “A powerful feature developing is if these circulating tumor cells could be tested by a simple blood test because that might be a way to screen patients better for cancer and monitor their response to treatment.”

This piece was originally published in the pages of The Winged Post on Oct. 17, 2018.