Providing Better Care to Patients with Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, affecting more than 26,000 Canadian women in 2017. The disease is often limited to the breast and surrounding lymph nodes. It is treated primarily by surgery, but about 70 per cent of women will also receive radiation therapy (RT) in addition to other treatments, such as chemotherapy and endocrine therapy.
Over the past two decades, improvements in computing and imaging technologies have resulted in major advances in the delivery of RT. It can now be delivered more precisely, intensifying the dose to the cancer and reducing the dose to the surrounding healthy tissues, thus avoiding toxicity. There have also been major discoveries around the molecular biology of breast cancers as well as a new taxonomy to classify breast cancer into subgroups. This helps us more accurately predict a patient’s risk of recurrence and response to treatment.
Dr. Timothy Whelan, Canada Research Chair in Breast Cancer Research, will use the technologic advances and improved understanding of breast cancer biology to tailor RT to the individual patient. To do this, he is evaluating whether molecular biomarkers of cell proliferation can identify low-risk cancers and enable women to avoid the use of RT altogether. He and his research team are also evaluating the effectiveness of short treatments given to just part of the affected breast over one week versus the usual approach of whole-breast radiation over three weeks.
Ultimately, Whelan’s research will determine whether biomarkers can be used to tailor the use of more extensive radiation for high-risk patients and avoid the use of RT altogether for low-risk patients.