Smart Bombs and Tea Leaves: The Future of Breast Cancer Treatment

self breast examOctober is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In the breast cancer world there’s always a lot of talk about “finding the cure.” I don’t know that it’s possible to find a cure for any type of cancer. I think that addressing cancer has to consist of a two-pronged approach: 1) Focusing on the causes so we can effectively engage in prevention and 2) Finding better (i.e. more effective and less devastating) treatment options for those who already have it. I firmly believe that prevention is the best long-term solution for significantly reducing the incidence of breast cancer (or any other type of cancer for that matter) and developing better tools and technology for early detection are also critical. There are many things we can do to lower our risk of developing cancer, but at the end of the day, if we’re not so lucky, having a wider range or treatment options would make a difficult situation a whole lot better and improve our odds of survival.

Despite all of the support and funding for breast cancer research and the advances in treatment achieved over the past 20 years, women diagnosed with breast cancer today still have limited and often devastating options for treatment. Depending on the type of breast cancer and the stage that it’s diagnosed at, women basically have three options: surgery to remove part or all of the breast, chemotherapy, or radiation –or some combination of these.

If you or someone you know has suffered through breast cancer treatment, then you know how hard it is on both the body and the mind. But there is a glimmer of hope that more and better treatment options are on the horizon. A number of recently concluded studies reveal new treatments for breast cancer with promising results.

The first study, sponsored by Genentech, tested a new treatment that targets and kills breast cancer cells while leaving healthy cells undamaged. Nearly 1,000 women with advanced breast cancer took part in the study, and according to researchers, the treatment stopped the progression of breast cancer for several months. This form of highly targeted treatment also appears to improve survival rates. Compared to another group who were given standard cancer treatment drugs, 20 percent more of the women involved in this study were still alive after two years.

This new treatment, called the T-DM1, is being dubbed “smart bomb” by researchers. Researchers combined Herceptin (the first gene-targeted therapy for breast cancer) with a chemotherapy that is normally too toxic to give on its own and another chemical that keeps the two substances bonded together until they reach a cancer cell. Once the cancer-killing cocktail comes in contact with a cancer cell, it releases the toxin to kill just the cancer cell.

The researchers in this study are confident that this double weapon will not be as damaging to the body as current treatments for breast cancer. Dr. Jennifer Ashton, an OB/Gyn and former medical correspondent for CBS News explains it like this: “Think of it like a heat-seeking missile with a nuclear warhead. So it travels around the body, does no damage until it meets the cancer, and then it deploys a massively toxic dose that wipes out [just] the cancer.”

While some of the women on T-DM1 showed signs of minor liver damage and low levels of blood clotting agents, most did not experience the usual problems of chemotherapy. The study’s leader, Dr. Kimberly Blackwell of Duke University added: “People don’t lose their hair, they don’t throw up. They don’t need nausea medicines, they don’t need transfusions.” You can view the ABC News story on this here.

Another study in England took a look at a more natural treatment approach for breast cancer. Scientists at Aston University in Birmingham and Russells Hall Hospital in Dudely examined the effects of a plant extract on cancer cells. The plant is called Virgin’s Mantle (Fagonia cretica) and it grows in the desert regions of Pakistan, India, Africa, and parts of Europe. It was chosen as the focus for this study because virgin’s mantle extracts are used to make medicinal tea in some of these places. In fact, a small hospital in Pakistan began using the herbal tea 40 years ago to treat breast cancer patients.

Though the treatment has long been regarded as folklore or placebo, the study found surprising results when the plant extract was combined with cancer cells in a lab. Tests showed that the extract stopped the growth of cancer cells within five hours and killed them off within twenty-four hours. Not surprisingly, women who take the tea report that there are no serious side effects –like those that result from conventional chemotherapy.

What causes the plant extract to be so effective? According to the researchers, the extract has a unique mechanism that can fix defects in the cell DNA that normally prevent tumor growth. When DNA is not properly functioning, cancer can flourish and even the effects of treatments such as chemo are less effective.

Researchers are quick to note that more research is needed to demonstrate if the plant extract is as effective at killing cancer in the body as it is in the lab and how it can be used to develop a new treatment drug.

 

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There’s A Lot Of Room For Improvement In Early Breast Cancer Detection

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month and it’s been awhile since I’ve written anything on the subject so it seems like a good idea to re-visit it. If you’ve been following my posts here or are a subscriber of our Health & Beauty News ezine and have been reading it for some time you know that when it comes to cancer –which is often though not always, the end result of a prolonged state of imbalance or “dis-ease” in the body– I’m a passionate advocate for prevention.

We now know a hell of a lot more about the role of food and nutrition in preventing disease and the role that antioxidant-rich foods and nutrients play in protecting us from cancer. At the same time, there’s been a growing movement to create awareness and educate about the role of repeated toxic exposure in promoting the development of cancer –thanks in large part to the work of the Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. But there’s still a lot of work to be done in this critical area.

When it comes to breast cancer, there’s also a lot of room for improvement in the area of early and accurate detection. Thinking about some of my friends and loved ones who have faced (and thankfully survived) breast cancer, I wish that there had been better ways to detect the cancer much earlier so as to open the door to more treatment options with less devastating consequences. As I learned a couple of years ago while researching this subject, by the time a cancer tumor or growth is large enough to be detected by a mammogram, it has already been developing in the body for 7 or 8 years!!

I used to believe that until this aspect of breast cancer was drastically improved, women who are diagnosed would continue to be faced with limited and far less than ideal treatment options. But at last, there’s some good news to share on this! Some recently concluded studies are revealing promising new treatment approaches that, if they pan out, will at least offer some kinder, gentler treatment options. Stay tuned as I will share some of the results of these studies in an upcoming blog post.

Risk Factors for Breast Cancer: What is Your Body Burden?

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tests the “body burden” of chemicals every two years, finds the average American now has 116 synthetic compounds in her body, including dioxin (produced by burning plastic), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (found in auto exhaust) and organochlorine pesticides (found in farming areas).

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), recent studies have detected these pesticides, plastics and polymers not only in umbilical cord blood, but also in the placenta, in human milk, and in the bloodstreams and body fat of infants. While some of these chemicals can pass through the body in a matter of days, more often than not, they tend to maintain a long-term presence in the body due to persistent or frequent regular exposure.

In its State of the Evidence: 2010, the Breast Cancer Fund notes that the increasing incidence of breast cancer over these decades paralleled the proliferation of synthetic chemicals. Approximately 85,000 synthetic chemicals are registered today in the United States, and it is estimated that 1,000 or more new chemicals are synthesized each year. Complete toxicological screening data are available for just 7 percent of these chemicals. More than 90% of them have never been tested for their effects on human health. That’s an awful lot of substances to be exposed to that could be harming us without our knowledge or consent.

That’s why health advocates are encouraging consumers to shun pesticides, remove outdoor shoes before entering their homes, choose fragrance- and toxin-free products, use baby bottles and water bottles that are free of a carcinogenic chemical called bisphenol-A (BPA), and lobbying for stricter laws as well as more research.

Our rising “body burden” is cause for serious concern, not just because of the increased risk for cancer in general, but because of a whole host of health problems that might be linked to it. Scientists say women are especially sensitive to synthetic chemicals because these substances can interfere with female hormone cycles, and because they adhere to body fat that is more prevalent in women than in men. And a growing number of studies demonstrate that chemical exposures during the prenatal period through adolescence can have profound lifelong impacts on breast tissue development and susceptibility to cancer later in life.

There are a lot of substances that we’re exposed to on a daily basis. Many of these exposures are out of our control, but there are also many we can control. Now, more than ever before, it has become imperative that we do everything in our power to protect ourselves and our children from future harm! What will you do to protect yourself and your loved ones?

Thermography: The Antidote to Mammography?

Let’s forget for a moment that mammography is a form of radiation that in and of itself may pose a risk of harm. There’s still the question of whether detecting breast cancer through mammography can really lower mortality rates from the disease or save women from the agony of having their breasts surgically removed.

According to Dr. Susan Love, a breast cancer expert and author, by the time you can feel a cancer or see it on a mammogram, it’s already been there for 8 to 10 years. That’s because in order for it to be detected by physical examination or on a mammogram, the tumor or cancerous growth has to have grown to a significant size. This simple truth flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that “early” detection through regular screening is the best way to treat and cure the disease.

In order for early detection to really work it has to be early enough in the process to prevent the disease from proliferating. In a recent Huffington Post article on the subject, Dr. Christiane Northrup questions why doctors continue to rely on mammograms when there are better technologies available for early detection.

In her opinion, the best test for early detection of breast cancer is something called a Thermogram — a form of thermal (infrared) imaging that can identify precancerous or cancerous cells very early, and produces unambiguous results, minimizing the need for additional testing. The Thermogram works by detecting areas of excessive heat, which are generally present wherever inflammation exists, and typically inflammation is present in precancerous and cancerous cells. In addition, where cancers are forming in the body there is usually increased vascular activity as new blood vessels are forming and old ones are being re-activated to help feed and accelerate the growth of these cells (a process known as neoangiogenesis). The newly formed or activated blood vessels have a distinct appearance, which, as it turns out, thermography can detect.

Thermal imaging is a non-invasive technology that allows doctors to detect changes at the cellular level before the actual formation of a tumor –and it doesn’t hurt the body the way radiation can. This can allow you to make preventive changes to your diet and lifestyle for example, or reduce your exposure to potentially harmful substances and monitor the impact of those changes on your cells before cancer develops.

In addition to thermography, several other promising detection technologies have been approved by the FDA, including ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computer-aided detection and diagnosis. While none of these tools in and of themselves are “ideal,” their wide adoption can greatly increase the odds of preventing breast cancer while minimizing the risks of over-treating and needless cutting. This requires weening ourselves from the spoon-fed idea that mammograms are the best tool for the job.

Breast Cancer Awareness: The State of Things

Breast cancer is a touchy subject and the statistics on it are sobering. Here in the United States, it results in the highest mortality rates of any cancers in women between the ages of 20 and 59. According to the Breast Cancer Fund’s latest report State of the Evidence: 2010, today a woman’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is 1 in 8 and, as of 2006 more than 2.5 million U.S. women were living following a diagnosis of breast cancer.

While breast cancer rates are higher in industrialized countries, it affects more women worldwide than any other type of cancer, and is still the leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women. Even women who move from countries with lower breast cancer rates to industrialized countries soon acquire the higher risk of their new country.

Here in the U.S. between 2002 and 2006, white women had the highest overall annual incidence rate for the disease (123.5 cases per 100,000 women), followed by African American (113.0 per 100,000), American Indian/Alaska Native (91.7 per 100,000), Hispanic/Latina (90.2 per 100,000), and Asian American/Pacific Islander (81.6 per 100,000) women.

The report goes into great detail about the different aspects of the disease that are being studied including the relationships between types of breast cancer and risk factors such as age, ethnicity, reproductive history, lifestyle and finally, the link between exposure to harmful chemicals, hormones or estrogenic substances, and radiation. It seems like the more we know, the more we need to uncover!

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. After a very long period in which the incidence of breast cancer steadily grew (between 1973 and 1998), rates have actually started to decline. Ask breast cancer researchers, radiologists, and primary care physicians, and most of them will likely attribute the decline to aggressive screening through mammography and early detection. This has been the mantra and gold standard for the medical community for more than a decade.

But the most widely discussed explanation for the recent decrease, is the sharp decline in use of post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy (HRT), especially following the announcement in 2002 of the association of HRT use with increased risk for breast cancer.

If you consider that most of the emphasis over the past decade has been placed on early detection, and treatment, it’s no wonder we haven’t found a “cure” yet. After all, the only way to “cure” a disease is to understand what causes it and actively engage in preventing it. The complex nature of breast cancer makes this a challenge, but the pendulum is swinging the other way and people are starting to pay more attention to their risk in general from exposure to chemicals, especially pesticides and plastics. Instead of waiting for validation from the scientific and medical communities that these exposures are linked (either directly or indirectly) to breast cancer, a lot of women are taking matters into their own hands and actively looking for ways to reduce or eliminate their exposure. And this can only bode well for our search for the cure. In what ways are you reducing or eliminating your risk of harmful exposure?

Pinkwashing: Think Before You Pink!

Lately everywhere I go I’m seeing pink! Pink ribbons to be more precise. That’s because October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, which is a bittersweet pill to swallow for those of us who have been affected by this disease –either directly or indirectly (myself included). As someone who is committed to providing safer and healthier choices in beauty and personal care, and has actively supported local lobbying efforts of the Breast Cancer Fund and The Safe Cosmetics Campaign, I have a slightly different perspective on this issue.

On the one hand, it makes me glad to see so much support and resources being rallied and devoted to fighting this awful disease. On the other hand I’m concerned about companies (especially cosmetics companies) exploiting this issue to present themselves as caring and compassionate while they continue to profit from making products that might actually be contributing to the problem. You’ve heard of the term Greenwashing? Well now we have Pinkwashing!

In her book Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, author Stacey Malkan devotes a whole chapter to this phenomenon where she rightly points out that instead of creating a revolution in the way companies think about what it’s really going to take to reduce breast cancer, instead what they have created is a revolution in shopping. Many companies have jumped on the pink ribbon bandwagon but how many of them are truly really concerned with the problem versus using it as a convenient way to sell more products? How much of the money that they raise from the sales of pink ribbon products actually goes to the cause and more importantly, what are these companies doing to ensure that their products don’t contribute to the problem?

For me, the dilemma is not so much about the hypocrisy of companies that say one thing and do another as it is about how this behavior keeps the focus and the conversation stuck in the wrong place, and our complacency around it doesn’t inspire true leadership from companies who are in a position to make a real difference.

Malkan quotes Jeanne Rizzo, the executive director of the Breast Cancer Fund, who specifically calls out cosmetics giants Estee Lauder, Revlon, and Avon for their complete lack of leadership on the issue: “When new knowledge comes to you that your product contains problematic ingredients, if you were authentic in your support for breast cancer, you would be vigilant in addressing that.” Instead, these pink-ribbon companies continue to defend their use of hazardous and questionable chemicals while spending heavily to fight any form of regulation that would require them to either disclose their use of such ingredients or eliminate them altogether!

Next time you’re tempted to make a pink ribbon purchase or to support a pink ribbon company, do yourself a favor and visit the Think Before You Pink web site at http://www.thinkbeforeyoupink.org and learn what kinds of questions to ask to make sure that the organization or product is really committed to the cause. If you think you may have been pink-washed, share your story here so others can benefit from it. Thanks!