What a year we have just been through. I know that I will be happy to close out 2020, and I’m looking forward to, hopefully, a much better year ahead.
Still, it was not all bad news this year, with the biggest positive story being the almost unimaginable accomplishment–thanks to researchers around the world–of developing a highly effective vaccine against COVID-19 in a matter of months.
The news about cancer research and cancer care this year was also a mixed bag of positive, encouraging developments as well as troubling news that can not be ignored as we move into 2021.
Here are my personal picks for ten of the top stories about cancer research and cancer care in 2020.
1. The first drug to treat HER2-positive breast cancer with brain metastases received FDA approval.
The drug therapy, called tucatinib (Tukysa) was big news at the 2019 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. The FDA, together with authorities in Australia, Canada, Singapore and Switzerland, approved the treatment in April 2020.
2. Congress passed legislation ending the practice of surprise medical billing.
An end to this practice in which patients may be hit with surprise bills from out-of-network providers after hospital stays was good news at the end of 2020.
3. The first targeted therapy for metastatic triple negative breast cancer received accelerated approval from the FDA.
The drug is an antibody-drug conjugate called sacituzumab govitecan (Trodelvy). The accelerated approval adds targeted therapy as a new treatment option for some patients with metastatic triple negative breast cancer.
4. Most women with early stage hormone receptor-positive breast cancer can safely forego chemotherapy.
The results of the RxPONDER clinical trial showed that postmenopausal women with early stage hormone receptor-positive breast cancer–even those with 1 to 3 positive lymph nodes–do not benefit from and don’t need chemotherapy. This was a major story out of the 2020 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.
5. Participation in cancer clinical trials has declined since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the result could be a slow-down of progress in developing new cancer treatments.
In a survey of cancer patients reported in the journal JAMA Oncology, nearly 1 in 5 cancer patients said they would be less likely to enroll in a clinical trial while the pandemic continues.
6. The rate of death from breast cancer remains an unacceptable 49% higher for African American women in the United States than for women of European descent.
A major progress report this year on cancer disparities also noted that African American women experience striking disparities in the late and long-term effects of breast cancer treatment.
7. Studies published this year brought renewed attention to the impact of external environmental exposures on the risk for breast cancer and other cancers, and the urgency of the remedial work needed.
A study by Silent Spring Institute found dozens of pesticides have been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for use even though they were linked with mammary gland tumors in animal studies, highlighting the need for the EPA’s assessment standards to be updated. Another study found that the impacts of climate change on health, including cancer rates, are already large and expected to continue growing without rapid action.
8. Liquid biopsies (done through blood tests) are increasingly helping to guide cancer treatment choices.
The FDA approved two separate liquid biopsy tests this year. The tests identify specific genetic changes in tumor DNA that has been shed into the bloodstream, and are used to match patients to treatments that correspond with the genetic changes. The tests can also be used for general tumor profiling.
9. There was encouraging news about progress on experimental vaccines to either treat or prevent cancer.
An experimental vaccine to treat HER2-positive breast cancer is currently in Phase 2 clinical testing, and shows promise when combined with a checkpoint inhibitor. Checkpoint inhibitors are another category of immunotherapy drugs already in use to treat various types of cancer. Separately, clinical trials for a vaccine to prevent breast cancer are expected to begin in Spring 2021.
10. The power of online patient advocacy was underscored by the results of a study on the Twitter community #BCSM–Breast Cancer Social Media.
The study found that the group has experienced tremendous growth since it was founded in 2011 by two breast cancer survivors. The weekly chats and other discussions using the #BCSM hashtag were found to be both an important resource for patients and an opportunity for patients and health care providers to connect and learn from each other.
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