Breast cancer continues to be the most common cancer in Australian women. In Queensland there are 446 new cases of breast cancer every year with Queensland women having a 1 in 9 chance of being diagnosed with the disease by the age of 80.
Breast Cancer Trials (previously Australia and New Zealand Breast Cancer Trials Group and Breast Cancer Institute of Australia) is the largest, independent oncology research group in Australia and New Zealand. Over the past 40 years they have conducted trials for the treatment, prevention and cure of breast cancer and they have played no small part in increasing survival rates which currently sit at 90%. The program involves 800 researches in 90 institutions across the two nations forming a powerhouse of knowledge, leading to faster progress and tangible results. As well as improved longevity in patients, the group has also contributed to increased quality of life by conducting vital research into treatments that can save women’s fertility as they undergo treatment as well as reducing the number of mastectomies that they require.
As the world turns pink to celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month I caught up with Dr. Nicole McCarthy, a Medical Oncologist researching for the Penelope B Breast Cancer Trial to discuss how clinical trials are contributing to the longer lives of survivors and how they are shaping the way we treat breast cancer in Australia and around the world.
“Participation in clinical trials is much more commonplace now than it used to be,” Dr. McCarthy says.
“There are different clinical trials for different stages and different subtypes of breast cancer. The trials that individuals will participate in will depend on their specific cancer. What subtype is it? Is it positive for oestrogen receptors? Does the patient carry the HER2 gene? There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ breast cancer and all of these factors will be considered when deciding what clinical trial, if any, a patient may be assigned to.”
“Participation in clinical trials gives patients access to new treatment options that may benefit them but would not be available otherwise. Patients who participate in clinical trials are also assigned a research nurse so in that respect they actually have an additional layer to their care and treatment plan.”
I spoke with one of Dr. McCarthy’s patients who is currently participating in the Penelope B trial. Lynn was first diagnosed almost two years ago and, as her world came to a standstill, she weighed up whether to participate in a trial. She ultimately decided that she had to do everything that she could do to fight off the disease. Lynn speaks very highly of her participation in her clinical trial.
“I have met such wonderful people since my diagnosis – through chemo, radiation and surgery. The clinical trial itself has caused very few issues for me – just some breathlessness and fatigue.
“I did consider not participating but in the end I realised that the breast cancer treatments available to me were as a result of the women who had gone before me. I decided to do my bit.”
This sentiment is echoed by Dr. McCarthy.
“All drug treatment advances are due to clinical trials. Early phase of studies establish whether the drug is safe. The second phase establishes whether the drug works in the subset it is aimed at treating. Phase three tests the drug in patients with early stage breast cancer. The final phase is to compare the new drug with the old treatments and reestablish standards of care based on these results.
“Current treatment protocols only exist due to previous clinical trials.”
Breast Cancer Awareness Month reminds us to focus on those in our families and greater communities that are affected by breast cancer. Thanks to the work of Breast Cancer Trials and similar organisations, breast cancer continues to be one of the most survivable forms of cancer in Australia.