HER2+ Early-Stage Breast Cancer

Understanding Your Early-Stage Diagnosis

Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in women. HER2 positive (HER2+) breast cancer is a very specific subset of breast cancer. If you’ve been diagnosed with Stage I, II or III HER2+ breast cancer, this content was written especially for you to help educate you about your unique diagnosis. Your doctor based this diagnosis on genetic tests you had that looked for specific protein receptors, known as estrogen and progesterone receptors (ER and PR) and human epidermal growth factor receptor-2 (HER2), in or on the breast cancer cells. In your case, too much of the HER2 protein or extra copies of the HER2 gene were found, and the cells are growing and dividing in an uncontrolled way. To help digest this information, it may help to have a basic understanding of cancer. Cells typically divide in an orderly fashion. When they are worn out or damaged, they die, and new cells replace them. Cancer develops when genes begin to change, or mutate, within the structure of normal cells. For you, the “change” is the presence of too much HER2. These cells – now called cancer cells – grow and push against normal cells. Sometimes they form tumors. Your diagnosis is called “early” stage because it is Stage I, II or III, meaning it has not spread to distant parts of your body. There are many treatment types available for this type of cancer:

  • Surgery – removal of cancer
  • Neoadjuvant – medication or radiation therapy before surgery
  • Adjuvant – medication or radiation therapy after surgery
  • Extended adjuvant – medication after adjuvant therapy

One unique aspect of an early-stage HER2+ diagnosis is the extended treatment period. Advances in targeted therapy for HER2+ breast cancer have improved survival rates dramatically, but these advances require a commitment to prolonged treatment after surgery (called adjuvant therapy) and, often, treatment is delivered preoperatively as well. Women whose cancer is hormone receptor positive as well as HER2+ will also receive endocrine/hormonal therapy for a number of years. Recent advances have enabled doctors to add another safeguard known as extended adjuvant treatment. Taken after adjuvant therapy, extended adjuvant treatment further reduces the risk of the tumors recurring.

It may surprise you to learn that you may need treatment for a lengthy time. Adhering to your medication schedule is crucial. It may help to think of adjuvant therapy and extended adjuvant treatment as another part of your daily routine; for example, taking the oral medication every morning when you eat breakfast. These treatments are needed and an extra assurance that may help ward off a recurrence.

Accepting, and even embracing, your treatment schedule is just one way to be an active participant in your own care. You're also encouraged to learn more about your diagnosis. You'll be more confident in your decision making and, as a result, you’ll be a better advocate for your own care. Taking care of yourself physically by eating right and exercising, and managing your emotional needs by seeking support, are also important.

Perhaps most important may be a change in your mindset. You may be used to taking care of others. At this time, it’s all about you and your body, so prepare to shift your perspective and focus on what you need to do to be the healthiest version of yourself possible.

 

Start the Conversation

Your health care team will be a valuable resource for information. Open the lines of communication by asking these and other questions. Knowledge is power. Understanding more about your diagnosis will make you a better partner in your treatment plan.

  • What are my treatment options?
  • What are the expected short-term and long-term side effects for each option?
  • Am I a candidate for a clinical trial?
  • What treatment do you recommend?
  • Will I be able to work during treatment?
  • Will I need help at home and, if so, for how long?
  • Will I have a nurse navigator or a main contact I can call with questions?
  • Will this treatment affect my ability to get pregnant or have children? Can you direct me to a fertility specialist before treatment begins?
  • Can you connect me with support groups and financial resources?

 

 

Additional Resources

 

 

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