Chemotherapy: we know how effective it can be. But we also know what an ordeal it can be, too. Which is why a recent report published in the journal JAMA Oncology may have extremely positive implications for thousands of breast cancer patients.
According to the report, the University of California have developed a new test – called MammaPrint – for cancer survivors. It examines 70 gene variants in blood and saliva which are known to increase the risk of cancer returning. In other words, it can predict which women are at low risk for years after they have surgery to remove cancerous tumours, which could allow those women – which make up half of early stage breast cancer patients – to avoid the severe physical and emotional traumas which are brought on by breast cancer chemo.
How the MammaPrint test works
Simply put, the MammaPrint test is a test of the genomes – the set of DNA within call of an organism – that has the potential to assess the chances of a recurrence of cancer. A sample of a cancer tumour is analysed to examine how active certain genes are, how the activity levels of the genes are affecting the behaviour of the cancer, and discovering how likely it is to grow and spread. The next stage would involve the doctor factoring in your age, your general health, the size and grade of the cancer and whether cancer cells were found in nearby lymph nodes in order to work out a treatment plan.
The research conducted so far suggests the MammaPrint test may eventually be widely used to help make treatment decisions based on the cancer’s risk of coming back within 10 years after diagnosis.
The end of unnecessary chemo?
Obviously, being able to deduce if a woman has a high or low risk of early-stage breast cancer coming back might be an enormous boon to the decision-making process over whether chemotherapy or other treatments to reduce risk after surgery are needed. Although the common perception is that breast cancer is breast cancer, we know that certain breast cancers pose little or no systemic risk. But the problem is that it’s been very hard to pin down and identify low-risk and high-risk cancers, necessitating a better-safe-than-sorry ethos.
Although the trialling of MammaPrint is still in the early stages, the initial results are very encouraging for both the medical community and those of us who have gone through breast cancer. For the former, a test that can accurately identify a section of women who have very little risk of their cancer recurring means that expensive and intensive treatments such as chemo can be safely factored out. For the latter, the more knowledge available the better – allowing patient and doctor to work out a more personalised therapy programme without unnecessary treatments.
Although the MammaPrint technique is still in its infancy, with no indication as to when it’ll be used in the UK, the study results are extremely encouraging – although it’s worth bearing in mind that the technique can only be used to analyse early-stage breast cancers.