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Breast Cancer: Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is Advanced Breast Cancer?
A: Breast cancer is considered advanced when it has spread from its original site to distant areas of the body. Physicians will look at a number of factors to determine the stage of breast cancer including tumor size, lymph node involvement, and whether the cancer has spread to other areas of the body. Once the stage of the disease is determined, there are two different ways advanced breast cancer can be classified: locally advanced or metastatic.
Q: What is locally advanced breast cancer?
A: The term locally advanced breast cancer indicates that the cancer is large (greater than 2 inches) or may have spread to other nearby tissue, such as underarm lymph nodes. Locally advanced breast cancer is considered Stage III, and if it is operable, it is referred to as Stage IIIA.
Q: What is metastatic breast cancer?
A: The term metastatic breast cancer indicates that the cancer has spread from the breast and lymph nodes to other parts of the body such as bone, lung, liver, or brain.
Q: What therapies are available for locally advanced or metastatic breast cancer?
Hormonal Therapy can be used to reduce growth, spread, and recurrence of breast cancer. If the cancer is found to be of the type that may be sensitive to estrogen, hormonal therapy may be able to keep estrogen from helping the cancer cells to grow and divide. The presence of estrogen receptors (a message-carrying protein that may stimulate tumor growth) in the cancerous tumor is the best way to predict a woman’s response to hormonal therapy.
There are several hormonal treatment options available for postmenopausal women with advanced or metastatic breast cancer that can be tailored to the lifestyle a woman wants to lead. Hormonal therapies are currently available in pill form or as a monthly intramuscular injection into the buttock. Ask your physician about these therapies.
Chemotherapy may be used if it is believed the breast cancer will not respond to hormonal therapy. Chemotherapy is the use of drugs that target and destroy rapidly dividing cells, including cancer cells. It is frequently used in metastatic breast cancer and used in locally advanced breast cancer to shrink the tumor and make it operable.
Biologically Targeted Therapy is a term that covers a range of new options that are to be added to the family of cancer treatments. These therapies target specific features of cancer cells to fight cancer. Since these therapies are specific, they are intended to have less effect on normal cells, which may reduce the chance of side effects like those caused by current cancer treatments. Types of treatment include monoclonal antibodies, which bind to proteins on the cancer cell surface to slow down cancer cell growth; angiogenesis inhibitors, which are intended to prevent the growth of new blood vessels and so cutoff the supply of oxygen and nutrients to cancer cells; and signal transduction inhibitors, which block the signals inside the cancer cell that promote the cells to divide and in turn cause the cancer to grow.
Most of these approaches are still experimental and would be offered as part of a clinical trial.
Radiation Therapy uses penetrating beams of high-energy waves or streams of particles to kill and hinder the growth of cancer cells. In metastatic disease, radiation is most commonly used to treat symptoms in breast cancer that has spread to the bone.
Surgery permits both diagnostic tissue removal and may help with control of cancer. In some cases, a physician may recommend surgery to remove tissue from the breast or lymph node.
Q: What are clinical trials?
A: Clinical trials are research studies that explain and evaluate new treatments and how they compare to commonly used cancer therapies. Clinical trials are the cornerstone of future advances in cancer therapies and help determine whether promising approaches to cancer prevention and treatment are safe and effective. It is important that women of all ages participate in clinical trials so that new and better treatments become available to breast cancer patients.
For further information about available clinical trials contact:
National Cancer Institute at 800-4-CANCER or www.cancer.gov
Coalition of National Cancer Cooperative Groups at www.cancertrialshelp.org