Breast Cancer and Herceptin (Trastuzumab)

During my treatment for breast cancer, I was part of a medical trial in relation to the effecacy of the drug Herceotin (Trastuzumab). Herceptin is a drug that belongs to the group of drug treatments called targetted or biological therapies. It stops specific ways that breat cancer cells divide and grow. I was treated with Herceptin because my cancer cells were found to have a higher than normal level of the protein Human Epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) on their surfaces. That stimulates the cancer cells to breast-cancer-s10-photo-of-her-2-genegrow. Herceptin works by attaching itself to the HER2 receptors so that the cancer cells no longer grow. it also stimulates the body’s immune system to fight the cancer cells.

I am one of the 20% of breast cancer patients to benefit from Herceptin as my tumours were the fast growing ones that are HER2 positive. I was given the Herceptin along with chemotherapy after my surgery in order to reduce the chance of the tumours spreading or returning. If your breast cancer is not HER2 positive or, indeed, HER2 negative, Herceptin will not be effective to you.

The Herceptin treatment I was given for my breast cancer was given to me intravenously through my Hickman line on the same days as my other chemotherapy. I was treated every three weeks as an out patient. However, the days were long, as the Herceptin was given over 90 minutes with additional time taken to give me saline solutions and my chemotherapy. I had to stay in hospital for several hours in case I was allergic to the treatment. Luckily I was not. However, like all drugs, Herceptin has side effects.

The common side effects of Herceptin include: feeling like you have flu, nausea and diarrhoea. I had all of these. I felt pain in my muscles and joints and often felt breast-cancer-s2-breast-cancer-illustrationlike I had a temperature so I swung between feeling hot and cold. I also had to have treatment with anit-sickness drugs for the servere nausea I suffered. I also got medecine from the hospital to counter the diarrhoea that I suffered.

The trial I was part of was looking into reducing the period of time that women are treated with herceptin, to see if it makes a difference to the efficacy. The usual period for getting Herceptin is about a year. I was treated with it for 9 weeks. I found the hospital visits and the side effects very draining, so, although I had initially felt diappointed that I was only receiving the treatment for a shorter period, in the end I was quite glad to get to the end of the course of Herceptin.

Valerie Penny

 

 

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Risk of Recurrence of Breast Cancer

herceptin_drugMy body has endured surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. As a result of this I have lost my hair and my energy. Still, that tumour the size of a baked bean is perceived as a threat. Its return must be further discouraged. My oncologist therefore insists on mammograms every six months and prescribes Letrozole. I must take one 2.5mg tablet each day for 5 years.

Breast cancer is often discussed as a general condition, but there are several different types that require different treatments. One way to distinguish breast cancer cells is through your genes. When you are diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor will test the cancerous cells to determine their genetic makeup. My tumour had more of the HER2 protein in it than it should have had. HER2 is a protein that stimulates the growth of breast cancer cells. It can be found in your blood and urine. Sometimes it is referred to as a tumour marker. Tumor markers like HER2 cannot be used for cancer diagnosis, but they can provide other important information and the presence of HER2 helps the doctor predict how likely the breast cancer is to respond to treatment.

It is estimated that about 20 percent of breast cancers are HER2-positive. Younger women are more likely to be her_2_geneHER2-positive than older women. HER2-positive breast cancer tends to be more aggressive and to spread more quickly than other cancers. That is why it is important to find out if the cancer cells in your body contain this protein. If your breast cancer is HER2-positive, you have a much better chance of successful treatment with methods that target the HER2 protein specifically. Results show that those who tested positive for HER2 at an early stage of the condition (with tumours 1 centimeter or smaller) had a higher risk of recurrence. Researchers have also found that HER2-positive patients had a 77.1 percent five-year survival rate, with no recurrence. However, they also are
around five times more likely to suffer recurrence than those who were HER-2 negative and have close to three times the risk of recurrence of those who tested negative for HER2. So I am absolutely sure I want to discourage recurrence.

Tumours that are HER2-positive are more often associated with factors that increase recurrence rates. For example, HER2 tumours are more likely to occur in younger women and have higher nuclear grade. Generally, the higher the nuclear grade, the more aggressive the tumour. HER2 tumours are also more likely to show positive margins during breast surgery. Positive margins occur when cancer cells extend beyond the edge of tissue that is removed. HER2 tumours also have a higher likelihood of residual disease being found when additional tissue is removed. Up to 70 percent of patients with HER2-positive breast cancer respond to treatment. However, total remission for the condition occurs only in around 7 to 8 percent of patients. Targeted treatments (medicines that target the HER2 protein, like the Herceptin I was treated with) have improved the prognosis for HER2-positive patients. Remissions can also be lengthy, offering another bright spot in prognosis and reports show that remission can last more than 15 years for some patients.

tabletI was diagnosed HER2-positive and this brings special challenges in my recovery from breast cancer. The HER2 protein can make the breast cancer more aggressive. It can also make it harder to treat with hormone treatments used for other types of breast cancer. However, drugs like trastuzumab (Herceptin) target HER2 directly and effectively. This drug, when used in combination with other drugs, shows some very promising results for improving prognosis and survival rates for patients with HER2 cancer. However, there is a small but real risk of heart damage and possible lung damage. Scientists are still studying how long women should take Herceptin for the greatest benefit. I am not ashamed to tell you that I hope their studies are successfully concluded soonest. I have a vested interest in this, as my tumour was HER-2 positive.

All in all, having made the decision to stay alive long enough to thoroughly embarrass my children, when the oncologist tells me that I must take one 2.5mg tablet of Letrozole each day for the next five years, I will do just that. Letrozole has side effects but I have decided that whatever they are, they have to be better than allowing the tumour to return.

Valerie Penny

Breast Cancer on Black Wednesday

Some days are better than others. Wednesday 25 April was a busy day. I spent the first half of it shuffling from one doctor to another. My first appointment was at my GP just for a regular check-up. It was then I was able to tell my GP that I had been recalled after my mammogram. He was quite cross that the hospital had not informed him. The GP also wanted to speak to me about the length of time I had been taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT). It was a long time, over 12 years. However, in light of the other appointment I had to attend later in the morning he decided not to make any changes at this point.

doctor's room

When I came back out of the surgery, I phoned my husband and he drove me on to my next medical appointment of the day. This, again was a regular appointment. It was my fortnightly visit to my psychologist. It is, perhaps, also ironic that I did not believe in depression until I was diagnosed with it over 10 years ago. Like many people, I thought it was not truly an illness, but a state of mind that could be surmounted simply by “pulling yourself together”. I cannot help but think a higher being was having a laugh when they got their own back and I have battled depression, without surmounting it, for so many years now.

However, when the psychologist asked how I felt about the possibility of a diagnosis of cancer, I still could not truly admit that it might, even now happen to me. So I put on my mask, as I so often do when faced with a problem too difficult to face, and told her that I did not know how to feel, until I knew what I had to face. It sounds sensible, but really, I simply could not release my emotions or inhibitions: not then, not yet.

When my husband and I walked from the psychology department of the hospital to the breast cancer care department we went quite slowly. Almost as if by not knowing the results of the biopsy and screening it would prevent the news from being bad.

We were not kept waiting long before I was called through to meet with the doctor and my husband came with me. None of the staff that I had seen the previous week were at the clinic that day. It was a little daunting to know I was to get the results from someone I had never met before.  However, the doctor introduced herself and the cancer nurse assigned to me was there and introduced herself too. She is Angela Watson.

It was explained to us that the biopsy had shown the tumour to be cancerous. It was explained to me that the disease had been found early and the tumour was about half the size of a baked bean. (I have always seen myself more as a “petit pois” kind of girl!) The doctor told me I would need to have surgery, a lumpectomy, (such an ugly word) to remove the tumour.  I was given an appointment to meet with the surgeon on Friday and that I would probably go for surgery in 2-3 weeks. What a lot of information.

Basic RGB

I was told the tumour was found to be HER-2 positive and that I should stop my HRT with immediate effect. HER2 is a protein found on the surface of certain cancer cells. Some breast cancers have a lot more HER2 receptors than others. In this case, the tumour is described as being HER2-positive. Tumours that are HER2-positive tend to grow more quickly than other types of breast cancer. Knowing if a cancer is HER2-positive can sometimes affect the choice of treatment. Women with HER2-positive breast cancer can benefit from a drug called trastuzumab (Herceptin). Herceptin only works in people who have high levels of the HER2 protein.

To understand HER2, it first helps to know a little about receptors and growth factors:

  • Receptors are particular proteins that are present within cells or on their surface. Other proteins or chemicals in the body can attach to these receptors to bring about change within a cell (for example, to make it reproduce or repair itself).
  • Growth factors are chemicals that attach to these receptors and stimulate cells to grow.

HER2 is a receptor found on the surface of certain cancer cells. It is made by a specific gene called the HER2/neu gene. HER2 is a receptor for a particular growth factor called human epidermal growth factor, which occurs naturally in the body. When human epidermal growth factor attaches itself to HER2 receptors on breast cancer cells, it can stimulate the cells to divide and grow.

Some breast cancer cells have a lot more HER2 receptors than others. In this case, the tumour is described as being HER2-positive. It is thought that about 1 in 5 women with breast cancer will have HER2 positive tumours. So roll on Friday and then I get to hear what the surgeon has to advise, but I am not ashamed to say, I have had better days.

Valerie Penny

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