FIRST PERSON | New research shows that older women with HER-2 breast cancers are at a higher risk for heart problems than previously thought. The risk is intensified when used as part of a cancer treatment containing anthracycline drugs for chemotherapy. Science Codex reports that Yale University published the study.
At age 50, I do not consider myself an older women. This new study is important to me, as I have HER-2 positive breast cancer and I am currently in treatment with Herceptin. Although this study focuses on the senior population, it is well known that Herceptin increases the risk in all patients, independent of age, for heart failure. That is why my oncologist insists I have a MUGA scan once every three months until my treatment is complete.
Yale University's Research
The Yale study looked at 45,536 women on Medicare who had early-stage breast cancers. What they found was Herceptin use jumped from just 2.6 percent in 2000 to 22.6 percent in 2007. Most older women are excluded from clinical trials. How Herceptin reacts with an older breast cancer population is not well documented.
The study placed women with breast cancer into groups for comparison. One group did not receive any adjuvant (post-surgical) treatment with chemotherapy or Herceptin. When compared to this group, women who had adjuvant treatment with Herceptin only had a 14 percent higher rate of heart failure. Women who had a combination of Herceptin and an anthracycline treatment for breast cancer showed a 23.8 percent increase in heart problems. Those that only used an anthracycline had 2.1 percent increase in heart failure or cardiomyopathy.
This study clearly shows that more research into real-life use of Herceptin is needed. While it works well for some women, in others it does not work at all. For women who suffer from heart failure as a result of breast cancer treatment with Herceptin, they must wonder if the treatment was worse than the disease.
I am concerned that my Herceptin treatment may trash my heart in order to help rid my body of early-stage cancer. At stage 1 -- with no signs of it being in my lymph system -- is Herceptin overkill? How many other women are in my shoes, where fear of recurrence drives them to treatments that may cause more harm than good. I would like to see more research into using Herceptin for non-metastatic, early-stage breast cancer. We may find that older women with early-stage HER-2 positive breast cancers will opt out of Herceptin treatments due to the high risk of heart damage.
Lynda Altman was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2011. She writes a series for Yahoo! Shine called "My Battle With Breast Cancer."