The following article features in Issue One of the ST BREAST magazine.
When Connie died, she requested that her body be delivered directly to our research team, so we could collect tissue samples to further our battle against this disease. Research is the only way we will continue to improve survival rates for the estimated 18,000 Australian women who face this life-changing diagnosis every year.
We have already come a long way. An Australian woman diagnosed with breast cancer today now has greater than 90% chance of surviving five years, thanks to better treatments and early detection. While we aim for a cure for the vast majority of patients, this is of little comfort to the women who either relapse or are diagnosed with metastatic cancer. As a community fighting this disease, we are heading in the right direction, but a lot more needs to be done.
Patients are critical partners in our research endeavour. They are not just recipients of the progress made. They are change makers, and help to improve the standard of care.
We can do all the research we like on mice and in a petri dish, but the most relevant model of all is the patient. At St Vincent’s Hospital, we invite all patients to donate a piece of their tumour to our researchers – effectively becoming our research partners. They are also invited to participate in our many clinical trials, as partners to define a better standard of care for the next generation of patients.
Breast cancer is not one disease – there are many sub-types. Much of the research is focussed on providing targeted, or customised therapies for different sub-types of the disease and to the patient. While it is still not routine to use genome sequencing to guide therapies for breast cancer, this is an active area of research and I think it will be the way of the future.
Patients often ask about immunotherapy, which is having great success in other cancers. In breast cancer, the only mature data we currently have is in triplenegative breast cancer, which represents around 10 – 15% of breast cancers. The benefits in this sub-type have been modest. But there is a small group of responders who get a very prolonged response. Research is now being done to understand why.
As we strive for patients to live longer with this disease, we must also ensure we do not compromise their quality of life. Helping a woman to live well, even when their cancer is metastatic, is an important imperative. De-escalating unnecessary treatment and new therapies with better side-effect profiles represent just some of the strategies in this space.
Connie Johnson said: “I think about my children growing up and them experiencing in their lifetime cures, better treatments and a world where cancer doesn’t tear families apart the way it does now.”
That is also my hope, and the hope of our extended breast cancer research community. The fight against breast cancer requires a team approach, including clinicians, researchers and most importantly, patients and their loved ones. It is our hope that this publication will inspire and inform you and your loved ones.”
Associate Professor Elgene Lim is the head of the Connie Johnson Breast Cancer Research Laboratory at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney. He also oversees breast oncology services at the Kinghorn Cancer Centre, St Vincent’s Hospital.