When it comes to the human body, there are healthy cells and — sometimes — there are cancer cells. Both have a lot to do with the genes that make up the body.
One such gene found in the breast is called the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), which helps control how breast cells grow, divide and repair. According to the American Cancer Society, when HER2 cells grow abnormally, the result can be breast cancer. Fortunately, there have been many advances in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment over the last few decades.
After a breast cancer diagnosis is made, a sample of the cancer cell is tested for HER2. When a person is HER2-negative, researchers have discovered that she or he will not respond to certain treatment options; however, when a person is HER2-positive, she or he is a good candidate for certain treatments, such as immunotherapy, that better attack those specific types of cancer cells.
“Immunotherapy is quickly growing as a promising treatment option for breast cancer,” explains Dr. Marilyn Norton, a hematologist and oncologist affiliated with the Barnhart Cancer Center at Sharp Chula Vista. “In simple terms, immunotherapy uses a person’s own immune system to fight certain diseases, like cancer. When immunotherapy is used for breast cancer cases where HER2 cells are present, we’re able to precisely attack the cancerous tumor cell better than ever before.”
The immune system monitors all normal substances found in the body. When something strange or foreign is detected, such as germs, the immune system tries to fight them off. But the body has a harder time identifying cancer cells because it doesn’t always recognize them as being foreign — cancer cells may look and act similar to normal, healthy cells. Cancer research has led to incredible advances in helping the immune system better identify cancer cells to be able to fight them off.
According to the American Cancer Society, there are several types of immunotherapy being used to treat cancer. These include monoclonal antibodies, which are man-made and can be designed to attack a specific part of the cancer cell; and medications that strengthen the immune system’s ability to recognize and attack cancer cells.
Dr. Norton says the goal with any treatment plan is to treat the cancer and decrease the possibility of recurrence. Immunotherapy can be used either as the primary treatment for some patients, or to complement a treatment plan with more components, such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy. It can also have applications with end-stage cancers, supporting a palliative care treatment plan in extending and improving a person’s quality of life as much as possible.
Patients with a breast cancer diagnosis should talk with their care team about the best approach for their specific cancer. Learn more about breast cancer care at the Cancer Centers of Sharp HealthCare.
For the news media: To talk with Dr. Norton about immunotherapy and breast cancer treatment for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.