HER2 positive breast cancer is different than other breast cancers. It is more aggressive than the most common type of breast cancers. Only 25 percent of all breast cancers are HER2 positive. Treating this type of cancer has its challenges. One of the major drawbacks of treating HER2 cancer is increased risk of cardiotoxicity.
HER2 positive breast cancers are very aggressive cancers. They grow faster than HER2 negative cancers. All cells, normal and cancerous have HER2 receptors. What makes a cancer HER2 positive is that this particular breast cancer has more receptors than a normal cell. The HER2 receptor receives a signal that causes the cell to multiply. More receptors means more signals and a faster rate of growth.
Treating HER2 breast cancer
There is good news and bad news for women with HER2 breast cancer. I quickly found this out when I received my diagnosis of stage II, HER2 positive breast cancer. The good news is that there are drugs specifically designed to combat this cancer. The bad news is that these drugs carry pretty severe side effects and they interact badly with chemotherapy drugs used to treat breast cancer.
HER2 breast cancer can be treated with the drugs Herceptin, Tykerb or Perjeta. Perjeta is the newest drug on the market for this type of breast cancer and it is in short supply. I am not a candidate for Perjeta, but I am undergoing treatment with Herceptin. Both Herceptin and Perjeta are given through an IV. Tykerb is taken orally and it is for people who cannot take Herceptin.
Herceptin good and bad
I had to adjust my chemotherapy treatment in order to accommodate Herceptin. My oncologist originally ordered Adriamycin, Cytoxin, and Taxotere, followed by a year of Herceptin. You cannot mix Adriamycin or any anthracyclines with Herceptin because it can kill you. Therefore, I would have had to endure 18 months of cancer treatment.
After I researched the most commonly used chemotherapy drugs for breast cancer and Herceptin, I discovered that all the drugs have the potential to damage my heart. I have no intention of trashing my heart in order to kill off breast cancer. So I told my oncologist that I did not want to take any form of anthracycline. She agreed that we could shorten the course of treatment to one year by combining Herceptin, Cytoxin and Taxotere. This course of treatment greatly reduced the risk to my heart and it reduced my chances of getting other cancers like leukemia.
How’s my heart
So far, I have not had any problems with my heart. My oncologist is watching me closely. Every three months I have to get a MUGA scan to check on the function of my left ventricle. I have seen a decrease in heart function, but then I regained that function three months later. My naturopath seems to think that the supplements she told me to take are helping with that.
MUGA scans have their own set of issues. It is a radioactive imaging process. Everytime you undergo radiation, you increase your risk for cancer. Its a trade-off that every person must weight in on. Battling cancer is all about trade-offs.
Other HER2 issues
I am one of the few people that experience extreme bone pain with Herceptin. It has taken months for my doctors to come up with a plan that truly manages my pain. I expect the pain to decrease after my last Herceptin treatment.
Herceptin has impacted my nails–I used to have great fingernails. Now, they split and break if you breath on them too hard.
A very helpful resource for HER2 positive breast cancer patients being treated with Herceptin is Genentech, the manufacturer of Herceptin. They have a program called Herconnection. If you are undergoing treatment with Herceptin, or if you are HER2 positive and are looking for good answers to questions about Herceptin, you should checkout their website.
It is all about trade-offs. I traded my energy and stamina levels in order to protect my heart while killing off HER2 positive breast cancer. Consider all your options before deciding on a course of treatment.