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Can Researchers Outsmart Breast Cancer Recurrence and Metastasis?

Anyone who has been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer and successfully gone through treatment is at risk of recurrence, the discovery of breast cancer in other parts of the body.

While we don’t know how many people will have a recurrence, we do know that about 94 percent of people with stage IV, or metastatic breast cancer, were previously diagnosed with an early stage breast cancer that later recurred. The risk varies from person to person and can happen at any time.

The risk of recurrence depends on the biology of the tumor (characteristics of the cancer cells), the stage at the time of the original diagnosis and the treatments for the original cancer. It’s important to note, a person can “do everything right” and still have a recurrence – it’s nobody’s fault and no one did anything to cause the recurrence.

Actresses Shannen Doherty and Olivia Newton-John recently announced their breast cancer recurred and is now stage IV or metastatic breast cancer, the most advanced form of the disease. That means it has spread beyond the breast and into other parts of the body. Metastatic breast cancer can be treated, but not cured, and treatment focuses on extending life as well as maintaining quality of life. Their unfortunate news reminds us that while we have come a long way in understanding breast cancer and developing treatments for it, we still do not understand what causes it to recur and how we can stop recurrence from happening.

Susan G. Komen believes our researchers can outsmart breast cancer. We’ve provided more than $1 billion dollars since our inception in 1982 in funding to researchers seeking to better understand breast cancer, develop better treatments, and prevent recurrence.

As part of our annual grant slate, Komen announced in September $26 million in funding for new research projects that focus on metastatic breast cancer, developing new, more effective treatments, and addressing the disparities in breast cancer outcomes. With that funding, Komen has now invested more than $210 million in more than 500 research grants focused on metastatic breast cancer.

Some ongoing research projects that Komen is funding in these areas include:

Komen Scholar Eric Winer, M.D., at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, is studying risk factors such as body mass index, weight gain and physical activity after diagnosis with the goal of identifying potential interventions to reduce late recurrence.

Komen Scholar Ingrid Mayer, M.D., from Vanderbilt University Medical Center, is investigating changes from breast cancer tissue and blood samples, before and after treatment, in people with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). She hopes to identify factors that predict chemotherapy resistance, recurrence, and relapse-free survival.

Ana Garrido-Castro, M.D., at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, is evaluating how genetics and immune cells change in people with TNBC over time. The results of this study could lead to new ways to identify TNBC patients at risk for developing treatment resistance, tumor recurrence, and metastasis.

Joshua Harrell, Ph.D., at Virginia Commonwealth University, is studying different combinations of Federal Drug Administration-approved drugs for their ability to kill breast cancer cells and stop breast cancer recurrence and metastasis.

And, Susan G. Komen’s grant to the Translational Breast Cancer Research Consortium (TBCRC) is helping support ongoing clinical trials focused on recurrence and/or metastasis.

What’s next?  Later this year, Komen will be announcing its 2020 research grants, which will include an investment in unlocking the potential of liquid biopsy technology. A liquid biopsy is a blood test that looks for cancer cells or pieces of DNA from cancer cells that are circulating in the blood.

Liquid biopsies are not yet a common practice in the clinic but have shown promise in breast cancer and could allow doctors to detect signs of recurrence before symptoms develop. If recurrence can be detected early, treatment can begin earlier, and more lives could be saved.

We still have more to learn about breast cancer recurrence. But each day, scientific advancements and breakthroughs are getting us closer to being able to better detect, treat and stop breast cancer. Research will lead us to those cures, and Komen is committed to funding the research that will get us there.

While we wait for research breakthroughs, Komen is fighting breast cancer through a comprehensive, 360-degree approach and supporting millions of people in the U.S. and around the globe. We’re supporting patients every day through our advocacy work and efforts to improve access to high-quality care, and also empowering them through trustworthy information.