Womens Health

Breast Cancer Treatment: Herceptin (Her2)

One drug treatment that has proved effective in the treatment of breast cancer is herceptin. In fact, breast cancer research has found that this drug treatment, which is also known as Her2, can help to prevent the relapse of breast cancer. However, some studies suggest that herceptin, whose chemical name is trastuzumab, is not always prescribed to the women who may most benefit from this cancer drug. So what exactly is herceptin and how can it help women with breast cancer?

What is Herceptin (Her2)?

Approved almost a decade ago, herceptin is a type of cancer therapy that attaches to Her2-positive cancer cells. Her2 stands for human epidermal growth factor development receptor 2, a protein that increases the growth of tumor cells. In comparison, chemotherapy targets all cells, including healthy cells, leading to increased risks and side effects.

Women with Her2-positive breast cancer have a lower chance of responding to certain types of cancer treatments, as well as a higher chance of recurrence.

Studies have shown that approximately 25% of breast cancer patients have tumors that are Her2-positive. This drug treatment is given to 20% of all breast cancer patients in the United States.

It is crucial to establish your cancer’s Her2-positive status, as Her2-positive tumors are more likely to develop and spread at a faster rate compared with those that are not Her2-positive. Her2-positive tumors also require different types of treatment.

How Does Herceptin (Her2) Work?

Herceptin was developed so as to target cancer cells that are Her2-positive.

Based on laboratory study, this cancer drug treatment is believed to work in two ways in order to stop Her2-positive cancer cells from developing:

  • by attaching to cancerous cells and communicating with the body’s immune system in order to target Her2-positive cancer cells
  • by preventing Her-2 positive cells from growing and developing into more cancerous cells

Her2 is administered intravenously (IV) either every week, every two weeks or every three weeks. It can take several months to see an improvement in your condition while using Herceptin.

This cancer drug can be combined with other chemotherapies or with hormone treatments. Research has shown that Her2 works best in combination with chemotherapy.

Currently, Her2 is being tested in combination with these chemotherapy treatments (chemical name listed in brackets):

  • Abraxane (albumin-bound paclitaxel)
  • Abraxane and Gemzar (gemcitabine)
  • Taxotere (docetaxel)
  • CMF (cyclophosphamide, methotrexate and fluorouracil)
  • Gemzar (gemcitabine)
  • Xeloda (capecitabine)

How Effective is Herceptin (Her2)?

Studies have shown that inaccuracy regarding diagnosis and treatment may mean that up to 40% of women who could benefit from Her2 are not being prescribed this cancer drug. This error margin has caused some medical experts to call for a re-evaluation of diagnosis and treatment guidelines.

In addition, two studies found that up to 20% of women with Her2-negative breast cancer were being prescribed the drug.

The benefits of Herceptin include: increased life span, reduced cancer growth as well as reduced tumor size compared with treatment that is comprised solely of chemotherapy. In fact, studies have shown that when Her2 was given after a tumor was removed surgically, it reduced the risk of recurrence by 50%.

Are there Risks Associated with Herceptin (Her2)?

Serious side effects linked to Her2 are rare, occurring in 1 to 5% of women. These risks include reduced heart function, blood clots, stroke and congestive heart failure.

In addition, Herceptin can cause lung problems as well as dramatically reduce blood pressure.

What are the Side Effects of Herceptin (Her2)?

The most common side effects associated with Her2 are:

  • diarrhea
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • infection
  • infusion reactions
  • muscle pain
  • nausea
  • rash
  • reduced white and red blood cell count
  • severe cough
  • shortness of breath
  • vomiting

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