Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women (although men can get it too) with more than 250,000 diagnoses and 42,000 deaths each year in the U.S. alone.
Some breast cancers are driven by inherited mutations in genes such as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Most are “sporadic,” driven by unknown causes or by environmental or behavioral factors like obesity, lack of exercise, or alcohol use. Breast cancer has several subtypes. Which include ductal carcinoma in situ, or (DCIS), invasive ductal, lobular carcinoma in situ, or ( LCIS), invasive lobular, and inflammatory breast cancers.
Breast cancer is commonly categorized and treated according to its molecular targets or lack thereof. These targets include the estrogen receptor (ER+/-), progesterone receptor (PR) and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2+/-). Triple-negative breast cancer lacks these three targets.
In 2002, Fred Hutch researchers working on the Women’s Health Initiative identified a major risk factor for lobular breast cancer: hormone replacement therapy. This landmark finding prompted millions of women to stop taking these commonly prescribed drugs, which caused not only breast cancer but also heart disease, stroke and dangerous blood clots. Our researchers continue to explore every aspect of breast cancer, from risk factors to potential cures.
Treatment for breast cancer generally involves a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Anti-hormone drugs are also commonly used with ER+ disease. Fred Hutch researchers are refining these longstanding treatments, where possible, to reduce toxic side effects. Our scientists are also working to develop new targeted therapies and immunotherapies, including vaccines.
Breast cancer research at Fred Hutch is all-encompassing. Our scientists pinpoint new risk factors and improve detection. We delve into the genetic drivers of the disease, finesse current therapies and develop new ones. Our scientists strive to enhance survivorship and patient outcomes. And we work to develop curative therapies for metastasis and reduce the health disparities and global burden of this cancer.
Our work in early detection covers a broad spectrum. And it ranges from refining current methods of screening to discovering and validating new biomarkers. It includes the use of community educators and comic books to promote health literacy in underserved populations.
Our scientists have identified several risk factors for developing breast cancer. These include hormone replacement therapy, alcohol use and poor sleep.
Our epidemiologists have also done extensive research into ways women can reduce their risk. Regular exercise is highly recommended, both for undiagnosed women and survivors of early-stage cancers seeking to avoid metastatic recurrence. Our researchers are investigating how exercise combats the disease by analyzing blood, biomarkers and muscle tissue before and after exercise.
Our scientists are also examining additional risk factors, such as oral contraceptive use, in relation to certain genetic susceptibilities. The goal of these studies is to assess how genes and environmental factors interact to promote breast cancer.
Our researchers are working to pinpoint the key gene mutations in many cancers, including breast cancer. They seek to understand how these mutations promote the development and progression of tumors.
Our researchers are exploring new ways to treat people with stage 4 breast cancer, which currently has no cure. In particular, they are testing whether they can harness the immune system, including using engineered immune cells, studying new targeted therapies and using molecular imaging and analysis to identify which patients may benefit from less-toxic therapies. In addition, our translational researchers are studying both the path of metastasis and the microenvironment of dormant metastatic cells within bone marrow in order to find ways to prevent future metastasis.
Our researchers are working to lessen the collateral damage and long-term side effects of cancer treatment. Their efforts include studying predictors of breast cancer progression and recurrence, how treatments may influence the risk of secondary cancers, and how lifestyle choices may increase quality of life and reduce risk of recurrence.
Clinical research is an essential part of the scientific process that leads to new treatments and better care. Clinical trials can also be a way for patients to get early access to new
cutting-edge therapies. Our clinical research teams are running clinical studies on several kinds of breast cancer.
Bridgette began reaching out to other women with breast cancer. After healing, she went on to found Cierra Sisters, an African-American cancer support group that’s been in operation for more than 20 years. She also began working with researchers at Fred Hutch to reduce health disparities in breast cancer and beyond. These days, Bridgette uses her faith and her experiences as a cancer patient to guide and educate others in her community — and across the globe in Africa — about the realities of breast cancer, its treatment and the path to a cure.