The five cancers that kill the most Canadian women each year are lung (9,200 deaths), breast (5,300), colorectal (4,100), pancreatic (1,950) and ovarian (1,700). Two others—uterine and thyroid cancers—are in the top five in terms of incidence (the number of new cases) but they are more treatable than pancreatic and ovarian cancer, so mortality is lower.
“Today, we can see the genomic code much more clearly,” says David Huntsman, a genetic pathologist with the Hereditary Cancer Program at the B.C. Cancer Agency in Vancouver. “That was never possible before. It has just become feasible in the last several months.” This will lead to better diagnostic tools for early detection, and customized therapies that target specific abnormalities in cancer.
Every person is unique, and every cancer is unique. Within each cancer are different types of cells; think of bees in a beehive. “If we kill the worker bees without killing the queen bee,” says Huntsman, “the cancer comes back.” Much work is underway to identify and eradicate those queen bee cells—known as stem cells—and that could lead to cures. Meanwhile, cancer care is becoming more individualized, he says.
The biggest breakthroughs are targeted treatments, which curtail the action of enzymes or blood vessels that help a cancer grow. (Two are already available for breast cancer: tamoxifen and trastuzumab [Herceptin]. Others are on the way.) But there are even more exciting advances underway in preventing and treating the cancers that most affect Canadian women. Here are the latest developments.
Lung cancer: Early detection appears to be the key in fighting this cancer. German researchers at the University Clinic of Cologne recently announced that they have developed a promising new blood test to detect lung cancer. Doctors are also looking at better diagnostics to determine the best course of treatment for each patient. Read about how the new treatment methods saved the life of Gail Pffaf.
Breast cancer: Advances and treatment are lowering the rate of the number one cancer hitting women. Aromatase inhibitor drugs (AI) that target estrogen-receptor positive cancers (about 60 percent of all breast cancers) have made strong advances. Also promising: PARP-1 inhibitors.
Pancreatic cancer: This cancer has become one of the deadliest because it’s usually detected too late to cure . Surgeons are are performing increasingly aggressive surgeries that remove more of the cancer to increase survival rates while a team of German doctors is working on a bold experimental study.
Colorectal cancer: This largely preventable cancer is killing as many Canadian women as breast cancer. New treatments include several chemotherapy agents and a targeted therapy—called bevacizumab (Avastin)—which is designed to interfere with the malignancy process. But the best defense are some simple blood tests that many women are still avoiding.
Ovarian cancer: Often lethal, this cancer is hard to detect because it mimics those of other illnesses. There are currently no screening methods to detect ovarian cancer early and recurrence rates are high. But there is reason to hope.
Read more about the new discoveries, treatments, current studies and diagnostic tools for each of these deadly cancers: