Everything You Need to Know About HER2+ Breast Cancer Including How to Find Support Post-Diagnosis

A breast cancer diagnosis is one of the scariest things someone could face. You’re worried, anxious, overwhelmed, and mainly confused, with a bombardment of questions flooding your brain. What treatment options do I have? What’s the survival rate? Is there anything I can do? It’s natural for these questions and then some to come to mind. After all, just the words breast cancer can send someone into a tailspin and when you combine it with Her2-positive it’s even worse. “Cancer is a big word,” Dr. Gretchen Kimmick, a medical oncologist at the Duke Cancer Center Breast Clinic in Durham, North Carolina tells SheKnows. “Everybody has different stories and things they’ve heard. And the sad stories are often the ones that everybody remembers.

But having treated breast cancer and seeing the drug development, I think people with Her2-positive breast cancer should be encouraged to know that we have drugs that increase the cure rate significantly. The cure rates are very high for Her2-positive breast cancer at early stages,” Dr. Kimmick says. While reassuring, every diagnosis is different, meaning no two treatment plans will be the same. That being said, it’s crucial to build a team of professionals that you trust and can provide with all the answers and resources you need. To help answer some of your questions, read below for a breakdown of all things Her2-positive.

What is HER2+ breast cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, about 15% to 20% (or 1 of every 5) of breast tumors have higher levels of a protein known as HER2. These cancers are called HER2-positive breast cancers. Human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) is a protein that helps breast cancer cells grow quickly. Breast cancer cells with higher than normal levels of HER2 are called HER2-positive. These cancers tend to grow and spread faster than breast cancers that are HER2-negative but are much more likely to respond to treatment with drugs that target the HER2 protein. “Essentially, her2-positive breast cancer is a subtype of breast cancer that has that her2 protein on the outside of the cancer cell,” says Dr. Kimmick. “And then the rest of the breast cancer is what’s called a triple-negative because it doesn’t have the estrogen, progesterone, or her2 receptors on the outside of the cell. It’s a subtype that is fast-growing, but now that we have really amazing treatments for it, people live on the treatments for a long time .”

Treatment and prognosis 

As Dr. Kimmick mentioned, new developments have been very effective in treating HER2, which makes the prognosis very good. There are various treatment options, which include surgery, chemotherapy, and drug therapy. Different types of drugs have been developed that target the HER2 protein such as monoclonal antibodies, antibody-drug conjugates, and kinase inhibitors. “There were clinical trials in the 90s and when Herceptin which is a monoclonal antibody, was discovered, some of these women with these really aggressive cancers all of a sudden lived decades instead of dying in a couple of years and that’s where we are now,” Dr. Kimmick says. “We’ve got different monoclonal antibodies that attached to Her2 protein that kill the cancer cells. We’ve also got small molecules that change the way that those cells grow and kill them.”

Survival rate 

Some factors influencing a person’s survival rate for breast cancer include the stage of cancer at diagnosis, the treatment the person receives, and the person’s age and overall health. “There’s a lot of research now that says exercise and maintaining a good, well-balanced diet decreases the risk of breast cancer,” Dr. Kimmick says. “In addition to improving quality of life after breast cancer.” Although HER2-positive cancer is more aggressive than HER2-negative cancers, the chances of survival are high, especially with an early diagnosis and targeted treatment. The National Cancer Institute, outlines the 5-Year relative survival percent, of female breast cases by cancer subtype for the years 2011–2017. It is important to remember that these figures do not pertain to everyone. Please, talk to a doctor about how your diagnosis will impact you.

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Stages are determined by if the cancer has spread/how far. The stage of cancer describes how much cancer is in the body, how serious the cancer is and how best to treat it according to The American Cancer Society. Doctors also use a cancer stage when talking about survival statistics. The stages range from stage 0 to stage IV. The lower the number, the less the cancer has spread, and conversely, the higher the number, the more it has spread. Stages are also measured by location, meaning they can either be localized (the original location), regional (cancer has spread to nearby tissues), or distant (cancer has affected organs throughout the body).

How to find support 

There are an array of online forums, groups, and communities people who have been diagnosed with Her2-positive breast cancer can join. Support post-diagnosis is a crucial part of the cancer journey, notes Dr. Kimmick. “There’s been research that shows people who have that kind of support, whether family, friends or a church, live longer,” says Dr. Kimmick. “So I think it’s incredibly crucial and really important to your well-being to have good relationships with the people around you and to have the support of people you love.”

She adds, “There are online support groups and support groups through different cancer centers. There are counseling systems and most large cancer centers that help patients. We have several resources for women with cancer in North Carolina to help get things done around the house. The American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has an online resource too where there they list places that people can call to get support.” And beyond that, there are also different organizations that offer support programs for people taking a certain medication.

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