It’s been more than three decades since President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer by signing the National Cancer Act. The bad news is, we haven’t won yet. The good news is, innovations in detection and treatment are improving survival rates.
More than 40,000 people in the U.S. (mainly women) will die this year from breast cancer, 95 of them in Ventura County, according to California Cancer Registry’s Cancer Facts and Figures. Breast cancer is the second deadliest form of cancer in women, but 88 percent of women with breast cancer will survive at least 10 years after their diagnosis. There are approximately two million breast cancer survivors currently living in the U.S.
New drugs and drug combinations, along with breakthrough radiation techniques and the integration of Western and alternative modalities, are increasing survival rates and making treatment more comfortable for patients.
At the forefront of radiation technology (as reported in the July 31 issue of VC Reporter) is a form of breast conservation therapy known as MammoSite. A relatively short-term procedure, it targets only the area immediately surrounding the tumor with radiation.
“We’re beginning to realize you don’t have to radiate the whole breast,” said Dr. Constanze Rayhrer, one of the only surgeons in Ventura County trained in the procedure. MammoSite reduces the duration of treatment and severity of radiation side effects while removing as little breast tissue as is safely possible.
Another promising technique for preventing cancer recurrence is cryoablation, which freezes the tumor, causing it to rupture. The ruptured mass spills its contents, initiating an immune response from the body. Much as a vaccination works, the body creates antibodies specific to the invaders, so if they show up again, they are destroyed.
Cryoablation has only been approved for general use on benign tumors, but Dr. Rayhrer is hoping to participate in clinical trials. “It’s still being studied, but it looks very promising for women who have metastatic disease,” she said.
Also under trial is “intraoperative electron beam” or “one-day” radiation therapy, which delivers a single mega-dose of radiation to the tumor site during surgery. While this procedure is in use outside the United States, it is still considered experimental here.
According to Dr. Rayhrer, the procedure is only efficacious if the cancer hasn’t spread to other areas, and this often takes days after surgery to determine. If it is found post-op that the cancer has metastasized, then a traditional full course of radiation is still necessary.
Taking a cue from reconstructive plastic surgeons, Rayhrer is now employing plastic surgery techniques to give patients a better cosmetic outcome. Because even lumpectomy can cause unsightly scarring and deformity to the breast, cancer surgeons and plastic surgeons are beginning to combine their procedures to perform “oncoplasty.” While still a relatively new approach, it’s gaining popularity with surgeons and patients.
A number of vaccines are currently being tested in animal trials. It was announced last month that a drug designed to attack HER2-positive tumor cells is showing striking results. HER2-positive tumors are more aggressive and have a higher rate of recurrence. The drug destroyed the tumors in all of the mice it was tested on. Until it’s tested on humans, however, it’s impossible to know how, if at all, effective it will be.
While alternatives to surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are still not generally embraced by most medical doctors, integrating acupuncture, herbs, relaxation and emotional support with traditional treatments is becoming more common. Dr.
Rayhrer isn’t sold on alternative therapies as a single approach to treatment, but she’s not against integrating them. “I do encourage that,” she said, “because the patients are participating in their care; and if they get a benefit from it, I’m thrilled.”
She also finds emotional and spiritual support, like the programs offered through the Wellness Community in Westlake Village or the group from www.ribbonsventura.org, to be very beneficial, especially for breast cancer patients. Because women with breast cancer are forced to process such a variety of emotional issues, it is one of the most stressful cancers. “People are worried about being disfigured. They’re worried about the effect on their families, their relationships with their spouses or partners. They have a lot of choices,” she explained. “So the support is just great.”
The American Cancer Society recently reported that acupuncture is effective in relieving symptoms associated with radiation, chemotherapy and certain drugs. Kirk Mann, M.Ac., L.Ac., who’s been practicing Chinese medicine in Ventura for 14 years, says the treatments he offers don’t only help to mitigate symptoms, they also contribute to a positive outcome in fighting the disease.
According to Mann, cancer patients tend to turn to Chinese medicine and other alternative modalities when they feel they’ve lost hope in traditional methods. He stresses that the earlier he can begin treatment, the more help he can offer.
“They can use these methods at the beginning,” he said. “They don’t have to use one exclusively.”
Mann uses acupuncture and moxibustion (heat is used instead of needles) in tandem with Chinese and naturopathic herb formulations to strengthen and support the immune system, but noted that patients also respond very favorably to “compassionate touch, empathy and therapeutic care, which are often lacking in the Western medical system.”
Alternative therapies are usually not covered by insurance, but they’re much more affordable then Western medicine. A visit to Mann runs $45 for one half-hour hour and herbs are a fraction of the price of prescription drugs. Another complemetary approach that is injection of a mistletoe extract, which is marketed in Europe under the name “Iscador.”
Clinical studies on mistletoe received mixed reviews from the National Cancer Institute. While studies with mice were promising, the extract did not perform as well in human trials, although a large percentage of patients reported an overall improvement in how they were feeling. Suzanne Somers reportedly traveled to Europe for mistletoe injections to treat her breast cancer.
We may not have won the war that Nixon initiated so many years ago, but progress is being made continually; and with so many discoveries on the Western front and greater acceptance of ancient modalities, it would seem it takes a village to cure a disease.