June 9, 2008
Breast cancer probed, activist honored
By Quinn Eastman
Cancer researchers and oncologists from across the country gathered in Atlanta May 16 to focus their attention on a form of breast cancer that disproportionally affects African American women.
Winship Cancer Institute’s inaugural Jean Sindab Scientific Symposium on Triple Negative Breast Cancer honored the scholar and human rights activist, who died in 1996 after a year-long battle with breast cancer.
A study of more than 800 breast cancer cases in Atlanta found that African American women were more than twice as likely to have triple-negative tumors, Emory public health researcher Mary Jo Lund told the group.
Triple-negative breast cancer’s aggressive pathology contributes to African American women’s higher breast cancer mortality rate, she said. Statistics don’t show a split in mortality until 1980, when health care disparities became more apparent with the widespread introduction of mammography.
“Black women today have the survival rate of white women from 25 or 30 years ago,” Lund said. “We’ve got to do better than that.”
Triple-negative breast cancers lack three biological markers that make other breast cancers vulnerable to drugs such as tamoxifen or Herceptin.
On top of that, triple-negative breast cancer strikes women two decades before than other forms of breast cancer — on average — and can come back quickly after chemotherapy, according to keynote speaker Funmi Olopade.
“No wonder we’ve had such a debate about the effectiveness of mammography,” said Olopade, director of the Cancer Risk Clinic at the University of Chicago. “We’ve really been looking at two different kinds of cancer.”
Olopade described a mother of four daughters from Brownsville, Texas, who came to her with breast cancer at age 27. Follow-up work with the family prevented the progression of cancer in two of the daughters, who inherited the mutation their mother carried.
Although chemotherapy can be effective against triple-negative tumors, researchers said a variety of experimental antiangiogenic/antihypoxic agents show potential as well.