Breast cancer survival times have doubled for most aggressive forms of the disease

LISBON, Portugal — The average survival time for many advanced breast cancer (ABC) patients has doubled in the past decade, according to new research. Improved treatments mean about half of the patients in the later stages of the disease can now live another five years or longer.

When breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, referred to as metastatic or “stage four,” it becomes harder to treat and the average survival rate is low as a result. However, researchers with the Advanced Breast Cancer Global Alliance say treatment options have improved for two out of the three most common types of advanced breast cancer. The third will hopefully be within reach by 2025.

The most common subtype of advanced breast cancer is called hormone-dependent, because its growth is dependent upon estrogen levels. Another subtype, HER2+, refers to cancer cells that make too much of the protein HER2, which stimulates growth.

Survival rates 2 to 5 times higher today

In the past decade, the median survival for these two subtypes of ABC, which together make up 85 percent of cases, has risen from just one or two years to five years. This means that half of the patients with these cancers may live for more than five years, with some living for as long as 10 years.

The third subtype, triple negative breast cancer, is not dependent on estrogen, nor does it overproduce HER2. This version of the disease has fewer treatment options and patients have the lowest survival rates as a result. Actress Angelina Jolie underwent a double mastectomy after discovering she had the genes which increase the risk of developing this type of breast cancer. In the last couple of years, hope has risen for this subtype as well, with two new treatments providing some survival benefit.

“We have made a major step towards our goal of doubling average survival times for patients because we have now achieved this in two out of three subtypes of advanced breast cancer,” says Fatima Cardoso, chair of the Advanced Breast Cancer Global Alliance, in a media release.

Cancer research coming a long way in a short time

“This disease is still incurable, but we have come a long way and this progress makes me feel hopeful. It means that for the majority of patients, they have two or three extra years of life, with good quality of life as well.”

“Survival has also improved for patients with triple negative disease, but we need to do more for these patients, especially as it tends to affect younger people who often have young children to care for,” Cardoso continues. “A decade ago there was a terrible lack of research about how to help patients with advanced breast cancer and, as a result, we had to base most of our recommendations on the opinion of experts.”

“We’ve worked hard to galvanize the research community around this issue, and we’ve made major progress over the last ten years. This year, as a result, most of our recommendations for treating ABC are now based on the best possible scientific evidence, called level 1. This is good news for patients because they can be confident that the treatments they are offered are backed by the best science and have the best chance of keeping them well for longer,” Prof. Cardoso concludes.

Researchers presented their findings at the Advanced Breast Cancer’s Sixth International Consensus Conference.

South West News Service writer Joe Morgan contributed to this report.