This subtype accounts for 1 in 5 breast cancers in women.
When diagnosing breast cancer, each patient’s individual disease can be categorized in a number of ways, one of which being something called receptor status. This refers to specific proteins on the surface of cells that “receive” things (such as hormones) to fuel the growth of the cancer.
“Think of [receptors] as little baseball mitts that sit on the surface of the cell,” says Amy Tiersten, MD, hematologist and oncologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. There are three types of receptors that could potentially be on a breast cancer cell: estrogen, progesterone, and HER2/neu.
What Is HER2-Positive Breast Cancer?
HER2/neu is a protein that helps in cell growth, and you can find them on the surface of all breast cells, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). While all women have them, some women develop an overexpression of HER2/neu, which helps fuel the growth and spread of the cancer.
When breast cancer is fueled by an overexpression of HER2/neu, this is called HER2-positive breast cancer. This subtype accounts for about 20 percent of breast cancer cases in women, according to ACS.
If the cancer cells do not have an overexpression of the HER2/neu protein, this is known as HER2-negative. This might mean the breast cancer cells have hormone receptors (hormone receptor-positive breast cancer) or they have none of the receptors (triple-negative breast cancer). Learn more about the different subtypes of breast cancer receptor status here.
Treatment for HER2-Positive Breast Cancer
Knowing the receptor status of an individual’s breast cancer is crucial, since many breast cancer treatments are catered toward the receptor status. This is especially useful for HER2-positive breast cancer, since women with this subtype may be candidates for targeted therapy, which has been shown to be extremely effective.
Targeted therapy gets its name because it targets specific gene or protein abnormalities on cancer cells. In the case of HER2-positive breast cancer, targeted therapy is a class of drugs that target the HER2 protein to find and attack cancer cells.
Compared to chemotherapy, targeted therapy is much more precise in how it attacks the cancer cells, and therefore causes much fewer side effects. That said, targeted therapy is sometimes used in combination with chemotherapy to improve outcome further.
The advances in targeted therapy for breast cancer has greatly improved cure rates for HER2-positive breast cancer, which has traditionally been known as an aggressive, fast-spreading cancer.
“Nowadays, it’s considered a good thing to have a HER2-positive breast cancer [compared to other types] because we have incredibly effective targeted antibodies to that HER2 protein,” says Dr. Tiersten. “It really is a time to be very hopeful about being able to offer patients new drugs that vastly improve the outcome of treatment for HER2-positive breast cancer.”
Dr. Tiersten is a professor of medicine, hematology, and medical oncology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She sees patients at the Dubin Breast Center.
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HER2-positive breast cancer has that HER2 receptor
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that's present in about 25 percent of all breast cancers.
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These are cancers that used to be considered very aggressive,
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but nowadays, it's considered a good thing to have a HER2-positive breast cancer
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because we have incredibly effective,
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targeted antibodies to that HER2 protein.
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HER2 is a great prognosis because we have very targeted therapy
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to that receptor, similarly to the way we have very effective anti-estrogen therapy.
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For HER2-positive breast cancer, chemotherapy plays an important role as well,
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but some of the biggest advances in modern medicine
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have been the addition of certain monoclonal antibodies
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which are targeted specifically to the HER2 receptor.
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They sort of zoom right to the cancer cell and that receptor.
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They're very targeted because not a lot of other cells in your body
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actually have HER2 receptors, and therefore they have fewer side effects
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than chemotherapy, which affects all kinds of cells in your body,
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so they zoom right to those HER2-positive cells
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and kill the cells that way.
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Breast cancer patients are doing so much better than they used to do.
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There's really been huge advances in the field,
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in terms of what we had to offer people,
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as compared to what we have to offer people now.
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There are so many exciting new drugs,
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and it really is a time to be very hopeful about being able to offer patients
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new drugs that vastly improve the outcome
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of treatment for HER2-positive breast cancer.
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Breast cancer HER2 status. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, 2019. (Accessed on January 2, 2020 at https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/understanding-a-breast-cancer-diagnosis/breast-cancer-her2-status.html.)
HER2/neu. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. (Accessed on January 2, 2020 at https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/her2-neu.)Targeted therapy for breast cancer. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, 2019. (Accessed on January 2, 2020 at https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/treatment/targeted-therapy-for-breast-cancer.html.)