Researchers all over the world are working to improve the prevention, detection, and treatment of breast cancer, as well as the quality of life for patients and survivors.
Current recommendations for preventing and treating breast cancer, as well as what causes it (among other things), are based primarily on research findings. Research studies can range from laboratory studies to clinical trials involving hundreds of thousands of people. Clinical trials are tightly controlled studies that can gather specific information about diseases as well as investigate promising new treatments.
Clinical trials are one way to obtain the most recent cancer treatments under investigation. They are, however, not suitable for everyone. If you want to learn more about clinical trials that may be right for you, ask your doctor if your clinic or hospital conducts clinical trials, or visit Clinical Trials for more information..
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Breast cancer causes
Studies continue to look at how certain lifestyle factors, habits, and other environmental factors, as well as inherited gene changes, might affect breast cancer risk. Here are a few examples:
- Several studies are being conducted to investigate the effects of physical activity, weight gain or loss, and diet on the risk of breast cancer.
- Although some breast cancers run in families, many of the gene mutations (changes) that cause these cancers are unknown. These gene changes are being studied in order to be identified.
- Several studies are being conducted to determine the best way to use genetic testing for inherited breast cancer gene mutations.
- Researchers are investigating how common gene variants (small changes in genes that are not as significant as mutations) may influence breast cancer risk. Gene variants typically have only a minor impact on risk on their own, but when combined, they may have a significant impact.
- In recent years, there has also been a greater focus on possible environmental causes of breast cancer. While much of the science on this topic is still in its early stages, it is an active area of study.
Breast cancer prevention
Researchers are looking for ways to help reduce the risk of breast cancer, particularly in high-risk women. Here are a couple of examples:
Studies are ongoing to determine whether certain levels of physical activity, weight loss, or eating certain foods, groups of foods, or diet types may help reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Some hormonal medications, such as tamoxifen, raloxifene, exemestane, and anastrozole, have already been shown to help lower the risk of breast cancer in certain high-risk women.
Researchers are still investigating which groups of women might benefit the most from these drugs.
Non-hormonal drugs used to treat blood or bone marrow disorders, such as ruxolitinib, are also being studied in clinical trials to see if they can reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Vaccines that could help prevent certain types of breast cancer are being researched.
New tests to personalize your treatment
To aid in treatment decisions, breast cancer tissue is routinely tested for the biomarkers ER, PR, and HER2. Any gene, protein, or other substance that can be measured in blood, tissues, or other bodily fluids is referred to as a biomarker.
When cancer cells die, circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) is released into the bloodstream. Identifying and testing ctDNA in blood for biomarkers is a rapidly expanding field of research.
Some ways ctDNA might potentially be used in breast cancer including:
- Searching for new biomarkers in tumour cells that may indicate that the cancer has become resistant to certain treatments (like chemo or targeted drug therapy)
- determining whether a particular drug will work on a tumour before using it
- Predicting whether early-stage breast cancer will recur (come back) in women
- Instead of using imaging tests like a CT scan or US to predict whether neoadjuvant treatment is working to destroy the tumour,
- determining the presence of breast cancer or a high-risk breast condition before changes are detected on an imaging test such as a mammogram
New imaging tests
Newer types of breast imaging tests are being developed. Some of these are already in use in specific situations, while others are being researched. It will take time to determine whether they are as good as or better than those currently in use. Among these tests are the following:
- Scintimammography (molecular breast imaging)
- Positron emission mammography (PEM)
- Electrical impedance imaging (EIT)
- New types of optical imaging tests
Breast cancer treatment
New treatments for breast cancer are constantly being researched. For example, several new targeted drugs for breast cancer have been approved in recent years.
However, more and better treatment options are required, particularly for cancers such as triple-negative breast cancer, where chemotherapy is the only option.
Breast cancer treatment research includes the following areas:
- Investigating whether shorter courses of radiation therapy for very early-stage breast cancer are at least as effective as the longer courses that are now commonly used.
- To determine whether different types of radiation therapy, such as proton beam radiation, are superior to standard radiation.
- Combining certain drugs to see if they work better together (for example, two targeted drugs, a targeted drug with an immunotherapy drug, or a hormone drug with a targeted drug).
- Attempting to discover new drugs or drug combinations that may aid in the treatment of breast cancer that has spread to the brain.
- Different immunotherapy drugs are being tested in the treatment of triple-negative breast cancer.
- Giving cancer vaccines alongside standard chemotherapy to see if it helps prevent cancer recurrence after treatment.
- Finding new ways to treat women with hereditary breast cancer, who have a higher risk of recurrence (coming back)
- determining whether chemotherapy is required for all women with HER2-positive breast cancer
- Finding new treatment options for breast cancer when current treatments fail.
Supportive care helps patients and caregivers manage the symptoms of cancer and side effects of cancer treatment. Clinical trials are looking at different medicines and techniques to try to improve supportive care for people with breast cancer. For example, some studies are investigating:
- If there are better medicines or ways to prevent the damage to nerves that sometimes happen with certain chemotherapy drugs
- If drugs or other treatments might be helpful in limiting memory problems and other brain symptoms after chemotherapy
- If certain heart or blood pressure drugs, can help prevent the heart damage sometimes caused by common breast cancer drugs such as doxorubicin and trastuzumab
- If there are medicines that might be able to help treat the tired feeling that cancer can cause
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