Three More Breast Cancer Breakthroughs

Breast Cancer, Healthy Living, Women's Health
on October 1, 2011

The headline: Tailored treatments may offer new hope to women with triple negative breast cancer (TBNC), a particularly aggressive form of the disease.

The details: TNBC, which is more common in African-American and Hispanic women, doesn’t respond to standard treatments like tamoxifen or Herceptin, so the tumors tend to recur; less than 30 percent of women with metastatic TBNC survive five years. But researchers at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville recently identified six subtypes of triple negative breast cancer that are linked to the activities in several genes and may respondto different therapies. 

The take-home message: While the findings are tantalizing, they’re not ready for prime time. More research is needed before they’ll influence treatment, says co-investigator Dr. Brian D. Lehmann, a post-doctoral fellow. But “it moves us in the direction of personalized medicine, in which treatment will be based on the genetic make-up of each patient’s disease.”


The headline: Women should get annual mammograms starting at age 40.

The details: In July, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended that annual mammograms be offered annually to women in their 40s. This differs from earlier guidelines issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which said 40-something women can get an annual mammogram but the benefit is small. “Our best advice is to get an annual mammogram beginning at age 40," says Dr. Robert A. Smith, director of cancer screening for the American Cancer Society. “We also agree it is important women know that while there is strong evidence supporting the value of mammography, it is not a perfect exam. It is not going to find all breast cancers. And it will identify abnormalities that are not breast cancer but will have to be further evaluated.”

The take-home message: While breast cancer in 40-something women isn't common, when it occurs it can grow quickly. Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of starting annual mammograms in your 40s, taking into account your family history and risk factors.


The headline: Vitamin D relieves joint pain in breast cancer patients, typically caused by aromatase inhibitors (AIs) prescribed to many women to shrink tumors and prevent a cancer recurrence.

The details: A new study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has found that prescription megadoses of Vitamin D2 can ease the muscle and joint pain that may prompt women on AIs to abandon the treatments. A group of women taking 50,000 IUs of D2, a type of the vitamin that comes from plants, weekly for eight weeks and a second group on the megadoses for 16 weeks reported up to a 40 percent reduction in joint and muscle pain. What's more, the women didn't experience bone loss at their femoral neck (the top of the thigh bone)–a plus since AIs can weaken bone. By contrast, women on a placebo lost about 1.5 percent of their bone mass in the femoral neck.

The take-home message: While more research is needed before D2 megadoses become routine, ask your doctor about trying it if you develop side effects from AIs. "AIs can reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence, so it is very nice to have something to offer women that is non-toxic and may help them stay on the medication longer," says study author Dr. Antonella L. Rastelli.