Metastatic breast cancer: keeping pace with science

WGEM News at Five
Updated: Dec. 2, 2022 at 5:04 PM CST
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NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WGEM) – Five percent of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have metastatic disease, but the good news is survival rates are climbing. According to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the number of women living with metastatic breast cancer rose to 168,000 last year, from 155,000 the year before. Now, new breakthroughs are keeping women alive longer while researchers race to find the next therapy that will work.

Sandy Cassanelli was 37-years-old, with two daughters in elementary school, when she got her first breast cancer diagnosis. She had surgery, chemo, 28 days of radiation, and the cancer was gone for two years.

“My breast cancer had metastasized to my liver, and I was now stage four, no cure, metastatic breast cancer,” Sandy tells Ivanhoe.

That began an eight-year cancer journey that continues today. Some of the new treatments she’s tried kept her disease controlled for as long as three years and others, just months.

Sandy says, “I am currently on my 11th line of treatment.”

“We’ve run into many people that have said, ‘Oh, thank goodness you have breast cancer because we heard that’s easy to get over, or easy to cure, or easy to treat.’ It’s like, that’s so far from reality,” Sandy’s husband, Craig adds.

Director at Yale Cancer Center, Eric Winer, MD is an internationally recognized breast cancer expert. He says women need to know they can now live for years in spite of metastatic breast cancer.

“We understand the genes that drive the behavior of the cancer in many situations. What that lets us do is, that allows us to pair the clinical trial, the specific clinical trial with this specific patient,” Dr. Winer explains.

Craig expresses, “Right now, we have treatments. That’s great, but we want a cure. We want the home run.”

Sandy is currently on an experimental treatment that is, for now, shrinking her tumors.

“We are just happy that finally something is working,” she says with relief.

The Cassenellis say if, or when, this treatment stops working, they’re optimistic scientists will have found the next therapy they can try.

“Being both somewhat realistic and very hopeful is a really nice mix,” Dr. Winer chimes in.

Dr. Winer says it’s important to note that metastatic breast cancer patients are also having much better responses to early phase clinical trials than in the past. For example, phase one trials traditionally test drug safety, but now, research has allowed oncologists to find treatments in phase one trials that are tailored to the individual. The Casannellis have formed a non-profit organization called Breast Friends Fund that has raised over $890,000 to date for breast cancer research.

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