Targeted cancer therapy versus chemo

Published: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 22, 2013 at 1:07 p.m.

Q: My sister just went through chemotherapy, and although it seemed to beat her cancer, the treatment almost killed her. Will there ever be a better way to fight cancer?

— Katie J., Gainesville

A: Chemotherapy is increasingly refined, and yet it still puts every patient through rough times. The good news is that often it's extremely effective. Stage 1 breast cancer, for example, now has a five-year survival rate of almost 90 percent. But a new wave of treatments, called molecular targeted therapy, are around the corner, and for certain cancers some are here already. What they do, or try to do, is destroy only cancerous cells without harming any surrounding, healthy tissue.

Herceptin — a monoclonal antibody used to fight HER-2-positive breast cancer — has been used for many years and is very effective (it cuts recurrence of breast cancer in half, compared with use of chemo alone), but it's useful only against 20 percent of breast cancers. Imatinib, another monoclonal antibody, works on certain types of leukemia by shutting down pathways that cancer cells rely on to function. The latest effective targeted therapy, ibrutinib, is an oral “smart bomb” that works against chronic lymphocytic leukemia and mantle cell lymphoma by blocking a protein (kinase) that cancer cells need to thrive. Every year, there are more-sophisticated, individualized treatments available, and hopefully cancer treatment won't always be so tough to go through.

But we're not just learning how to treat cancers more effectively. Using medications like aspirin, nutrients like DHA omega-3 fatty acid, foods like broccoli and vaccines like the one against HPV, we're learning to prevent some cancers! Glad your sister's OK.

Email your health and wellness questions to Dr. Oz and Dr. Roizen at youdocsdaily@sharecare.com.

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