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13 Developments That Have Helped the HBOC Community

September 6, 2012

September marks Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. And September 23-30 we will celebrate National Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Week! Follow us on twitter, Facebook, and our website to see what we are doing to celebrate and to share your celebration ideas with us!

In honor of this time of year and in keeping with our “13 Things” theme, it seemed appropriate to share my list of 13 developments that have helped our community. Feel free to share your own additions to our list.

1) Discovery of BRCA1 and BRCA2 and advances in gene sequencing
Long before the discovery of the BRCA genes, scientists knew there was a link between breast and ovarian cancer. Geneticist Mary-Claire King first identified the existence of the so-called “breast cancer” genes. Scientists isolated the BRCA1 gene in 1994 and the BRCA2 gene in 1995, leading to the development of a blood test to screen for mutations in these genes. In the past, women with a strong family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer had no way to determine whether or not they had inherited the predisposition to cancer that ran in their family. With genetic counseling and BRCA testing, women can learn more about their risk for breast and ovarian cancers and make more informed health care decisions.Further progress in research and clinical genetics has allowed us to better quantify people’s risk for cancer. BRCA testing has improved and more mutations can be detected in these genes than previously.

Other genes have been identified that can also increase the risk for breast and ovarian cancers, although most increase the risk to a lesser degree than BRCA. Ambry Genetics and University of Washington are examples of laboratories offering genetic panels for people who have breast and ovarian cancers but have no known BRCA mutation in the family. Other tests are in development.

2) FORCE founded as a resource to educate, support, and unite the hereditary cancer community
In 1999, Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE) was established as a devoted resource for the hereditary cancer community. Our founding principle was that no one should face hereditary cancer alone. Our mission has remained constant: to improve the lives of people and families affected by Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC) Syndrome. Our programs provide support, education, awareness, research, and advocacy. In the 14½ years since our inception, FORCE has provided compassionate support and evidence-based information to thousands of hereditary cancer survivors and previvors through our many programs.

3) Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)
Prior to 2008, widespread fear of genetic discrimination kept many people from taking advantage of genetic tests that could make a significant difference in their health care decisions and outcomes. This fear also prevented many people from becoming involved in medical research. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) became law in 2008. GINA prohibits health insurance and employment discrimination on the basis of genetic information or a genetic test result. FORCE and researchers from The Ohio State University recently published findings from a survey of consumer knowledge and attitudes about GINA. The study indicated that many people who undergo genetic testing are unaware of GINA.

4) Targeted cancer therapy
Targeted cancer therapies treat disease by interfering with molecules involved in tumor growth and progression (called molecular targets). By focusing on molecular and cellular changes found in cancer cells, targeted cancer therapies may be more effective than other types of treatment and cause fewer side effects. Because these therapies may benefit only a subset of cancer patients, they are usually accompanied by tests to determine whether a person’s cancer cells express the appropriate target.

One of the first molecular targets identified for cancer therapy was the estrogen receptor (ER) expressed in many breast cancer tumors. The FDA has approved several drugs for the treatment of ER-positive breast cancer, including tamoxifen, a selective estrogen receptor modulator, and aromatase inhibitors including anastrazole, letrozole, and exemestane.

PARP inhibitors block an enzyme used by cells to repair damaged DNA. Research is ongoing to determine if PARP inhibitors may work against cancers in people with BRCA mutations, since their tumor cells already have problems repairing DNA. The medications are being tested in clinical trials, and are not yet FDA-approved for use outside of clinical research.Learning more about the molecular defects of specific tumors should help to clarify the role of therapies targeting these defects. More research is needed to determine which targeted therapies work best for which tumors.

5) Oncotype DX, Mammaprint and other treatment decision tests
Not too many years ago, all women diagnosed with invasive breast cancer received the same chemotherapy. Although it effectively treats cancer, chemotherapy has serious side effects, and not all treatments are equally effective for all people. With the development of OncotypeDX, Mammaprint, and similar treatment decision tests, oncologists can use molecular techniques that examine the biology of the tumor, help predict which tumors have the highest likelihood of recurring and which patients would benefit most or least from chemotherapy.  With Oncotype DX, studies have shown that for patients with lymph node-negative, ER-positive breast cancer, a low recurrence score argues against the use of chemotherapy and a high recurrence score argues strongly in favor of the need for chemotherapy. Before these tests were available, doctors knew that not all patients benefit from chemotherapy, but they had difficulty determining which patients needed more aggressive treatment. Using these tests oncologists can help spare women whose chance of recurrence is very low from aggressive chemotherapy.

6) Discovery of fallopian tube origins of many hereditary gynecologic cancers
Gynecologic oncologists had long believed that most ovarian cancers start in the ovarian epithelium, the cells lining the surface of the ovary. However, emerging research suggests that many so-called “ovarian” cancers in BRCA mutation carriers begin in the fimbria (the area closest to the ovary) of the fallopian tubes (the passage that connects the ovaries to the uterus). Since this theory was first proposed, several studies have supported this observation. Recognition of fallopian tubes as the site of many BRCA-associated ovarian cancers has led pathologists to pay more attention to the fallopian tubes removed during prophylactic surgery; catching some “occult” or hidden cancers that would have been otherwise missed. This has also led to the discovery of Tubal Intraepithelial Carcinoma (TIC), precancerous changes in the tubes. Further research is continuing to determine if we can develop better detection and prevention methods, including whether removal of the fallopian tubes might lower the risk for gynecologic cancers in mutation carriers who are not ready to prophylactically remove their ovaries. Removing the fallopian tubes alone is not currently an approved risk-reduction strategy.

7) Serial sectioning of ovaries and fallopian tubes
As more doctors began recommending prophylactic bilateral salpingo- oophorectomy (BSO) to prevent ovarian cancer in high-risk women, pathologists began to discover small, unsuspected, “hidden” cancers had often developed in the ovaries and tubes of women by the time they had surgery. Although tiny, some of these cancers were still aggressive and further surgery or treatment was recommended. If not discovered and therefore left untreated, these cancers could recur later. Researchers at University of California at San Francisco published their findings on a pathology protocol designed to find these hidden cancers by looking at many ultra-thin cross sections of the removed tissue. Previously, pathology procedures called for examination of only a few representative samples. Since this extensive “serial sectioning” became standard-of-care protocol for high-risk women who undergo bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (BSO), more women are being diagnosed at early stages of fallopian or ovarian cancer, before the disease has spread and while it’s still curable.

8) Laparoscopic and minimally invasive BSO
In the past, removal of the ovaries and tubes was always performed through a large abdominal incision that allowed the surgeon to view the organs being removed. The invention of the laparoscope–a tiny camera on the end of a surgical tool that can be inserted through a small abdominal incision—allowed gynecologic surgeons to achieve a similar outcome with a smaller incision, less pain, and quicker healing. Generally, women who have prophylactic laparoscopic BSO can go home the same day. Abdominal surgery requires several days of hospitalization.

Although on occasion laparoscopic procedures are converted to full abdominal surgeries if there is a complication or excessive bleeding, or if the surgeon needs to see more of the abdominal cavity, for the most part, minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery is standard-of-care for prophylactic BSO. The development of robotic equipment has further improved a surgeon’s visibility of and access to abdominal organs, especially during more complicated surgeries to remove large or invasive tumors.In some cases gynecologic surgeons recommend hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) as well as BSO. This additional surgery can often be performed vaginally through another small incision at the time of the BSO.

9) Screening breast MRI
Women with BRCA mutations have a lifetime breast cancer risk as high as 85%. Their risk begins at a younger age than for sporadic breast cancer, when breast tissue is very dense and harder to image by mammography. In the past decade, researchers began studying whether magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) could be a more sensitive screening tool for breast cancer in high-risk women. Since 2004 several papers have consistently reported that breast MRI screenings of women with BRCA mutations find more early-stage cancers. Earlier detection increases the chance of successful treatment and long-term survival: this has also been shown in these studies. Annual MRI in now standard-of-care for breast cancer screening in women who are high-risk due to a mutation or a strong family history of cancer.

10) Mastectomy advances
Radical mastectomies were performed as standard treatment up until the 1970s. This disfiguring surgery removed all of the breast tissue, lymph nodes under the arm on the affected side, the muscle underneath the breast, and the nipple and areola, leaving only enough skin to close the incision. Lymphedema and long-term pain were common after radical mastectomies. Over the years, this procedure was replaced by less extensive and less invasive surgeries that do not compromise survival. Development of modified radical mastectomies, skin-sparing mastectomies, and nipple-sparing mastectomies has led to fewer complications, fewer long-term side effects, more aesthetic outcomes, and in some cases, retention of some sensation in the breast.

11) Sentinel lymph node biopsy
Sampling underarm lymph nodes of breast cancer patients allows doctors to determine if invasive disease has spread beyond the breast, and affects prognosis and treatment recommendations. Prior to sentinel node biopsies, women who were diagnosed with breast cancer faced axillary dissection—removal of multiple lymph nodes—to stage their cancer. Axillary dissection, however, increases the risk for lymphedema, painful and dangerous swelling of the arm. Sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) allows surgeons to sample only one or a few lymph nodes that are most likely to contain any cancers cells that have spread beyond the breast. If the “sentinel” lymph node or nodes are free of cancer, most patients do not have additional nodes removed. Removal of fewer lymph nodes lowers the risk for lymphedema and improves quality of life in breast cancer survivors. A large study of 5,600 women published in 2010 confirmed the value of SLNB. It showed no difference in disease-free- or overall-survival between women who had negative sentinel nodes and received full axillary dissection compared to those who received sentinel biopsy alone.

12) Reconstruction advances
Reconstruction has evolved over the years, delivering more options for rebuilding natural-looking breasts after mastectomy with less extensive surgery. Doctors can move fat from the belly, thighs, or hips to reconstruct breasts. In the past, these tissue transfers required extensive loss of muscle. With the development of perforator flaps, the same outcomes are achieved while sparing muscles. Fat transfer can augment or rebuild breasts using liposuction and fat injection procedures.New silicone implants are softer and are believed to last longer than older implants. They may also be less likely to rupture, leak, and deflate. A new type of expander being studied allows women to control their own expansion process. Direct-to-implant surgery offers patients the opportunity to forgo expansion, reducing the overall reconstruction timeline with less discomfort.

13) Survival data on prophylactic oophorectomy
Women with BRCA mutations have a lifetime risk for ovarian cancer that is many times higher than women in the general population. Since the discovery of the BRCA genes, many research studies have documented the effectiveness of prophylactic mastectomy and oophorectomy for lowering risk in high-risk women. But until 2010 there was little published research to show that these surgeries improved survival for women with BRCA mutations. In 2010, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania published their research on behalf of a large international collaboration, following over 2000 women with BRCA mutations of whom about half chose to undergo one or more risk-reducing surgeries. The compelling results showed that risk-reducing surgeries significantly reduced cancer diagnoses, and that risk-reducing removal of ovaries lowered cancer-related and overall deaths.

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3 Comments

  1. Teresa Wicks says:

    Thank you from the depth of my heart for doing all the work and research you do to keep all of us informed, healthy and mentally at peace!

  2. Cherine says:

    thank you for making such a detailed description of what progress has been made. So many times I get caught up with what more needs to be done that I forget how far we have come. It is a very thoughtful list that I can send to my relatives who don’t want to discuss their risks.

  3. When I see these things listed out, I realize we have made important progress. Still lots to do, but these are all wonderful strides forward.

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