Innovative experimental vaccines could finally eliminate one of the most common cancers in women and help America win the war on cancer.
More than 264,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. It is the most common cancer in women in the United States, with more than 43,000 deaths from this condition annually.
But death rates have plummeted 43 percent between 1989 and 2020, after successful public health awareness campaigns, better screenings and new drugs.
The graph above shows the rate of breast cancer cases among women as a rate per 100,000 people compared to the death rate shown by the red squares. As death rates have plummeted, case rates continue to rise
The rate of new cases has remained fairly stable between 1992 and 2020, hovering around 130 per 100,000 women.
But the number of new cases of breast cancer is increasing by about 2 percent each year, John Wong, an internist and professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, told the Washington Post.
Modern methods of mammography were developed in the late 1960s and first officially recommended by the American Cancer Society in 1976. It is still the most reliable way to detect breast cancer.
The first mastectomy: a way to treat breast cancer by removing the entire breast through surgery – was performed by the American surgeon William Halstead in 1882. To this day, this is the standard operation for breast cancer.
According to the National Cancer Institute, a double mastectomy reduces the risk of developing breast cancer by at least 90 percent for women with a strong family history.
Radiation therapy was introduced in 1937, as was breast-saving surgery. After the tumor is removed, radium-tipped needles are placed in the sinuses and near the lymph nodes.
In 1978, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved tamoxifen for use in the treatment of breast cancer.
The chart above shows changes in breast cancer screenings (black line) since 2017 by month. It also shows a predicted detection rate (yellow dotted line) and the Covid infection rate (blue line) in the US over the same period. The assessments were initially flat, but dropped in the first year of the pandemic by as much as 14 percent.
The anti-estrogen treatment was the first in a new class of drugs called SERMs, selective estrogen receptor modulators.
Eighteen years later, the FDA approved anastrozole (Arimidex) to treat breast cancer. The medicine blocks the production of estrogen.
Since then, a host of other drugs have been approved. One of the most recent, Trodelvy, was approved by the FDA in 2020. It treats triple-negative breast cancer that has spread among people who have not responded to at least two other treatments.
In May, a leading health panel recommended that the age at which women get regular breast cancer screening be lowered from 50 to 40 years.
The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) said an additional 20 million women in their forties would benefit from a mammogram every two years.
The change would save 20 percent more lives, according to the USPSTF, which wrote the proposal in response to rising rates among middle-aged women.
Currently, all women ages 50 to 74 are recommended to have a mammogram, a low-energy X-ray of the breasts, every two years.
The advent of chemotherapy drugs in the 1970s boosted survival rates across the board. Still, it wasn’t until generic versions of the drugs became available in the 1980s that access became widespread.
Treatment options for breast cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and hormone treatment. Often a combination of two or more of these treatments is used.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation beams focused on cancerous tissue.
This kills the cancer cells or stops them from dividing. It is mainly used in addition to surgery.
A patient may undergo breast-conserving surgery or removal of the affected breast, depending on the size of the tumor.
Medical professionals have identified genetic mutations that place women at high risk of developing breast cancer.
Some of these women choose to have a voluntary prophylactic mastectomy – the surgical removal of both breasts, even if they are completely healthy at the time, to reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Angelina Jolie opened up about her decision to undergo a double mastectomy and reconstruction in 2013.
This led to the ‘Angelina Jolie’ effect: an increase in genetic testing for breast cancer.
Chemotherapy, a cancer treatment using anticancer drugs that kill cancer cells or stop them from dividing, is often used.
Some types of breast cancer are affected by the “female” hormone estrogen, which can stimulate cancer cells to divide and multiply.
Therapies that lower the level of these hormones, or stop them from working, are commonly used in people with breast cancer.
Now a new line of treatments is emerging: cancer vaccines to treat and prevent cancer.
A vaccine, developed at the famed Mount Sinai hospital in Manhattan, New York, quickly melts down the primary tumor and teaches the body to hunt down and kill cancer cells that have spread elsewhere..
Two women with breast cancer went into partial and full remission after receiving the vaccine, which is not for the faint-hearted, in a clinical trial.
Patients receive 17 injections in the tumor and another eight in the arm over six months.
Meanwhile, a new triple-negative breast cancer vaccine co-developed by Anixa Biosciences and the Cleveland Clinic also raises hope for a cancer-free future.
Unlike most cancer vaccines being tested that are given to patients after diagnosis, the new vaccine is given to cancer survivors to prevent a relapse or healthy years in advance.
The vaccine has several key hurdles to overcome, including large-scale human trials and Food and Drug Administration approval, but Dr. Amit Kumar, chief executive of Anixa Biosciences, the company developing the vaccine, told him told DailyMail.com that if all goes well, ‘we might be able to eliminate breast cancer as a disease, just as we have eliminated polio and smallpox’.
President Joe Biden declared war on cancer in the US last year, vowing to halve death rates from the disease in 25 years.
The National Institutes of Health recently declared this ambition “impossible.”
Lung and breast cancers have seen the biggest improvements in lowering mortality rates so far, which experts say is due to successful awareness campaigns and healthier habits.
But there are concerns that some of the gains made may have been lost in the early stages of the pandemic, after many stayed away from health care services.