As October comes to an end, the pink banners promoting breast cancer awareness begin to fade from view for another year.
But the fight against breast cancer is a perennial, year-round effort for the scientific researchers who work to provide patients and their physicians with a better understanding of this disease and new, more powerful treatments to fight it.
Significant progress has already been made in breast cancer research and treatment through community efforts and government funding for innovative research.
As a result, today in the United States, patients with breast cancer can expect cure rates of 80-90 percent, especially if the disease is discovered early and treated properly. In addition, progress in research has led to better treatment outcomes, including for patients with metastatic or advanced disease.
Despite the progress, much work remains to be done through continued emphasis on the value of innovative research and its relationship to patient care.
Not all breast cancer research is “translational” -- that is, not all research has the potential to directly affect patient outcomes. However, funding agencies and the scientific community are becoming increasingly aware of the value of this "bench-to-bedside" research, which has a more defined connection to improved disease outcomes.
The remarkable expansion of information available to the public, through the Internet and all types of media, has enhanced patient awareness of available treatment options, including clinical research trials. This has greatly shaped society’s support for more research that produces direct, meaningful benefits for patients.
Breast cancer patients and their families should take adequate time to evaluate and understand the diagnosis, learn about the biology of their disease, and the treatment options available to them. Except for very unusual, urgent situations, long-term treatment decisions do not need to be made at the moment of diagnosis.
Especially in complex cases of breast cancer, advanced stage, or in the case of disease recurrence or resistant disease, patients should always pursue second opinions by expert breast cancer physicians in order to learn as much as possible about their disease and treatment options, including research studies.
Sometimes, second opinions with a breast cancer expert can help relieve a patient's anxiety about their current treatment plan. Or a second opinion can help the patient decide which treatment option is best for them, and outline future treatment options, especially for patients with metastatic disease.
A multidisciplinary group of different kinds of breast cancer specialists may sometimes be ideally more suited to review a second opinion regarding optimal patient care, depending on the specifics of the case.
Ultimately, a second opinion with a breast cancer specialist leads to peace of mind, which comes from the power of awareness and the realization that knowledge is a powerful weapon in the fight against breast cancer.
It is our responsibility as a society to ensure unrestricted access to the best available healthcare options for our citizens. Through research discoveries and enhancing awareness, we can continue to improve the outcomes of breast cancer and reduce its impact on women and their families, both in the US and ultimately at a global level.
Dr. Suleiman Massarweh is a professor of medicine in the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and a breast oncologist at the Markey Cancer Center.