YOUR HEALTH: A targeted breast cancer treatment when some drugs can’t be used

Researchers have found a way to successfully treat HER-2 positive cancer and protect patients from heart failure.

FAIRFAX, Virginia – HER2 positive cancers are aggressive, but the good news is many can be treated with targeted therapies.

The bad news, those drugs can hurt the heart.

For 65-year old Nanci Young, her journey to good health has required patience and trial and error.

Nanci is a four-time breast cancer survivor.

She's been living with HER2 metastatic breast cancer since 2002.

BACKGROUND:   The HER2 gene makes HER2 proteins.  HER2 proteins are receptors on breast cells.   HER2-positive breast cancers tend to grow faster and are more likely to spread and come back compared to HER2-negative breast cancers.

"I say that proudly, I do. Because I know so many women who are not here. And for some reason, I am."

Doctors put her on Herceptin, it knocked her cancer into remission.

But then Nanci showed signs of heart failure and had to quit the cancer drug.

"I knew the cancer was going to come back. I knew it."

And it did.

Dr. Ana Barac, a cardiologist who specializes in the treatment of cancer patients, launched the SafeHeart trial, enrolling women with abnormal cardiac function and HER2 positive cancer.

"Can we prevent further worsening of heart function and at the same time complete treatment for breast cancer?" asked Dr. Barac who works at the MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute.

Dr. Barac treated the patients with Beta blockers and Ace inhibitors, recommended drugs for heart failure and also had them stay on targeted therapies.

Almost all were able to continue cancer treatment safely including Nanci Young.

"We can't let women die because they can't take Herceptin," said Young.

"We gotta do better for them."

Nanci remains cancer-free but will have to stay on targeted therapies for the rest of her life.

Dr. Barac says all of the women in the SafeHeart trial, with the exception of three, were able to remain on their cancer therapies safely during the trial.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.