National Breast Cancer Awareness month has officially begun today, but I’ve been in the pink for over a month.
Preparing stories and photos for The Tribune-Democrat’s 12th annual Breast Cancer Awareness project, I was struck this year by some solid advances in the fight against the disease.
Medical oncologists Drs. Ibrahim Sbeitan and Sheetal Higbee at Conemaugh Cancer Center, along with Drs. Rashid Awan and Michael Voloshin, are clearly optimistic about three new targeted treatments for advanced breast cancer.
Over at Chan Soon-Shiong Institute of Molecular Medicine at Windber, Chief Scientific Officer Hai Hu and his team are hoping to patent a string of molecules that could lead to more cancer treatments.
That’s right, apparently it’s possible to patent a distinct chain identified within the RNA of a nasty subtype of cancer.
The bad news is: All these advances provide more hope for just a small segment of women and men with breast cancer. The good news is: Those patients had very few options until this year.
Another advance over the years saw the introduction of, first digital mammography, and then 3D mammography.
Breast surgeons and radiologists say the imaging technology picks up cancer better, and with less radiation than the old X-ray film systems.
Over the 12 years I have done the stories, advances have been agonizingly slow from year to year. Sbeitan points out, however, that cancer treatment is “block by block,” with each treatment building on the last. Doctors hope each new therapy helps patients live longer while the next step is developed.
Ironically, one thing that may be slowing new advances is the success of current treatment, Voloshin pointed out. Doctors can’t deny patients a proven treatment to try something researchers think might be a little better.
“We have a lot well mapped out on how to treat cancer,” Voloshin said.
All the doctors agree that breast cancer diagnosis and treatment getting better. Patients are surviving longer, and more cancer is being caught and treated early.
I have often said, one of the things I love about my job is that I get to talk to people who are passionate about the subject. The Breast Cancer Project is certainly a good illustration.
I’ve gotten to know most of the breast surgeons and oncologists in the region over the years, and it’s clear each one cares deeply about the patients. Indiana breast surgeon Dr. Dan Clark pointed out his wife is a breast cancer survivor, but all the surgeons take it personally. Johnstown’s Dr. Patti Stefanick calls the patients “my ladies.”
Breast radiologists have told me they moved into the specialty because it’s one area where radiologists work closely with patients and develop relationships.
But the medical oncologists can be the most passionate. With the increased success of targeted treatments and second- and third-line treatments, they have seen the progress before their eyes.
My biggest challenge is that the doctors are so excited to share the new developments and successful treatments that it’s hard to keep up with them during interviews.
One physician – who will remain nameless here – started the interview by saying, “It’s a good time to have cancer.”
Realizing how that sounded, the doctor explained that it’s a much better time than it was a decade ago.
Awan said cancer patients “can live with the disease and have a normal life.”
“There is more hope in the world of cancer,” Sbeitan said.