Breast cancer treatment has improved significantly, but unfortunately many women are subject to recurrence five years or more beyond the original diagnosis. The risk is even higher in the case of HR-positive breast cancer, which constitutes more than 50 percent of all breast cancer cases.
A team at Albert Einstein Cancer Center in New York conducted a study of circulating tumor cells, or CTCs, in breast cancer patients. Blood samples came from participants in a previous trial combining a vascular endothelial growth factor called bevacizumab with chemotherapy in post-surgery treatment.
Could a Blood Test Be the Answer?
At the time of the previous trial, none of the participants displayed evidence of recurrence. After a median follow-up period of 1.6 years, the team found nearly 20 times increased risk of recurrence in HR-positive patients who also had a positive CTC assay result. There was no corresponding increase in patients with HR-negative breast cancer.
According to team leader Dr. Joseph A. Sparano, the team was surprised to see that the rate of recurrence was so high. Scientists are now planning to study negative CTC tests to determine if they can serve as negative predictor markers.
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Actress and singer Olivia Newton-John has campaigned to raise awareness of cancer research since she began fighting the disease in 1992. In May she made the sad announcement that her breast cancer had returned and spread to her lower spine.
The Prognosis for Metastatic Breast Cancer
Newton-John’s breast cancer is metastatic, also known as Stage IV, which refers to cancer that begins in one area of the body and spreads to other organs or tissues. It was discovered when the singer postponed a concert tour due to lower back pain that was originally thought to be sciatica.
Family and friends remain positive, and Newton-John herself plans to resume touring in August. While metastatic breast cancer is a serious issue, doctors say that Newton-John and other women with this diagnosis have reason for optimism.
Five-Year Survival by the Numbers
A recent study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention discovered that the five-year survival rate for women with metastatic breast cancer had reached 36 percent during the last 10 years. That number is double the five-year survival rate for women diagnosed in the early 1990s.
According to Dr. Sagar Sardesai of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, the healthcare community has begun thinking of metastatic breast cancer as a chronic disease. Physicians are working with patients cancer treatment programs that relieve symptoms and improve their quality of life.