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As exciting as it is effective, the fine-tuned Herceptin treatment is the first in what is becoming a long line of game-changing therapies for breast cancer. New medications like Perjeta and Nerlynx also specifically target the HER2 molecule. "It actually gives me goose bumps to talk about Perjeta, because when it's combined with Herceptin, the tumors just melt away," says Schaefer-Cutillo. "I've never seen anything like it." For estrogen-positive cancers, which make up close to 75 percent of all breast cancers, research has found that combining an anti-estrogen drug such as Faslodex with a CDK4/6 inhibitor medication like Ibrance can yield better outcomes compared to using anti-estrogens alone, even in Stage 4 patients. The CDK4/6 pathway acts like an escape mechanism in estrogen-resistant tumors, explains Schaefer-Cutillo. "The women don't lose their hair, they don't get sick. They are able to live totally normal lives and go to work and take care of their kids and grandkids. It's been quite an amazing advance for estrogen-positive cancer."
There's even new hope for very hard-to-treat populations, such as triple-negative and BRCA-positive patients (like Angelina Jolie, who carries the BRCA gene mutation for breast cancer and opted for a prophylactic double mastectomy in 2013). Researchers are looking at androgen receptors as a possible new treatment for triple-negative disease (that is, breast cancer that is neither HER2-positive nor estrogen-receptor positive). Immunotherapy drugs, while not yet approved for breast cancer, have shown some promise for triple-negative patients in early trials, so it's an area to watch. And for BRCA patients, a brand-new drug called Lynparza offers a pill-form treatment that's much less toxic than chemotherapy. Trailblazing medications like these are coming to market faster, fueled by patient-driven need and fast-track approvals from the FDA.
A Support Net Woven from Pink Ribbons
One of Miles of Hope's signature programs is its Medical Gap Fund, which puts money directly into the pockets of patients. "We want to help pay your bills when you're going through breast cancer treatment, whether it's your rent, mortgage, medical copays, cellphone, or summer camp for your kids," says Forood. "If you have a bill that you can't pay and you're in treatment for breast cancer, we're going to help you with it." Miles of Hope has partnered with six social service organizations in nine counties to help find and identify people who need them most, and also to help manage and augment the support they give. "A woman called the other day and said, 'I don't have a proper winter coat and boots, and I'm going back and forth to Vassar Brothers hospital,' and I said, 'Call LL Bean and send me the bill!' Another gal once called and said, 'My mother is in a wheelchair and in treatment for breast cancer, and we can't afford to have a ramp built to get her in and out of the house.' I said, 'Get a carpenter and start building—we'll pay for it!'"
It's easy for Miles of Hope to get overwhelmed with requests, which is why they cap the amount of monetary help at $1,000 in most cases. "We're trying to help you in the emergency part of your treatment, so you can get over that hump," says Forood. "We cap it because there are so many people out there who need our help." Meanwhile, several other programs allow the organization to keep giving—including a scholarship program for college-bound students whose lives have been affected by breast cancer, and a peer-to-peer hotline that's manned by trained survivors who offer help and support to breast cancer patients.