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Hoping for a Better Way

October 07, 2013 | Michelle Liew

Among some of the fear surrounding a cancer diagnosis is fear of the treatment itself. Many women who get breast cancer worry about losing hair, having all or part of a breast removed, or how traditional treatments might affect fertility. Those fears are even stronger once breast cancer has metastasized, spread beyond its initial location, because it’s more difficult to treat.

Immunotherapy holds the hope of not only being able to treat these more difficult cancers, but to remove some of the fear and stigma of being a cancer patient. Many immunotherapies have fewer and less severe side effects than traditional treatments. By spurring the patient’s own immune system into attacking the cancer, the patient’s life can stay relatively normal. Without looking or feeling like a cancer patient, fighting cancer becomes a lot less scary.

Of course, it’s normal to worry about how you will be perceived by other people after the side effects of treatment, but men with breast cancer face another fight. It’s far less common for men to get breast cancer than women, about 1 in 1000 compared to 1 in 8, but that also means men face additional stigma with a breast cancer diagnosis.

Many CRI-funded scientists are working to find solutions that can prevent breast cancer and better treat metastatic cancers. Drs. Danila Valmori and Maha Ayyoub, both members of the CRI/ Ludwig CVC Trials Network, are planning to initiate a vaccine trial in patients with estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer. Dr. John T. Wilson is also working toward vaccines to treat and prevent breast and other cancers by enhancing T cell responses against tumors by using smart polymers.

Others are working to prevent metastasis from ever happening. Dr. Haihui Lu has identified a marker for a type of breast cancer more likely to metastasize and seed other tumors throughout the body. She is planning to test a molecule targeting that marker in hopes that it will the block that cancer from seeding other cancers.

Dr. Paola Betancur, working with graduate student Diane Tseng, are testing a strategy that targets a specific protein. That protein may make it possible for cancer to avoid being attacked by the immune system, by sending out a “don’t attack” message to macrophages, a type of white blood cell that engulfs and digests dead and harmful cells. Studies using a treatment that blocks that protein shows that it can dramatically shrink tumors. Their work will help us to better understand the treatment and improve it for patients.

We are making leaps and bounds in our understanding of how to use immunotherapy to treat breast cancer and new discoveries are being made all the time. There are even more CRI-funded scientists working on novel breast cancer research. And we will keep working to find ways to create treatments that fight cancer and changing what it feels like to be a cancer patient.

You can learn more information on the history of immunotherapy and breast cancer here, or view available immunotherapy clinical trials for breast cancer patients using our Clinical Trial Finder. You can also send someone you care about a Pink Ribbon Bouquet from our partner, 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, who is teaming up with CRI again in October and will donate 10 percent of the proceeds to Cancer Research Institute.
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