Breast Cancer in NJ — Why Your Shot at Survival is Greater Here
New Jersey women are diagnosed with breast cancer more than any other form of the life-changing disease.
But deaths caused by breast cancer have declined over time, thanks to major advances in science that have led to more targeted treatment and slower progression of the disease.
Starting today, WPG presents a three-day series examining the Garden State's fight against breast cancer, featuring the medical professionals and courageous patients leading the way.
Breast cancer is not one disease; it's a spectrum of diseases. And understanding the differences in subtypes of breast cancer has helped doctors and researchers steer treatment decisions and protocols in a way that can more efficiently eradicate the problem.
"Years ago, the standard treatment was chemotherapy plus hormonal therapy," said Dr. Deborah Toppmeyer, chief medical officer for the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.
One of the most significant advances in the field, Toppmeyer said, is a better understanding of which tumors truly benefit from chemotherapy. Sparing a woman the toxicity of a therapy that may not be beneficial at all is a big plus.
Medical professionals, she said, have also become more knowledgeable on pairings of drugs or treatments that can prolong the time before a patient has to switch to a different form of treatment. This extends a patient's length of progression-free survival.
"When you have a better understanding of the enemy, you're more likely to win the war," Toppmeyer said.
The state cancer registry cites a breast cancer incidence rate of 133.4 women per 100,000 population from 2011 to 2015. Lung cancer, in comparison, affected 52.6 women per 100,000 over that time period. Ovarian cancer — 12.3 per 100,000.
The mortality rate, meanwhile, dipped by 2.3 percent.
In August 2016, at just 29 years old, Silvana Florian-Maldonodo was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive subtype that offers doctors limited avenues for treatment.
"The first thing I thought — I'm going to die, so let me start planning my funeral," the Union resident said.
Chemotherapy is still an effective option for the rare subtype, so an intense regimen of treatment began.
In the process, Florian-Maldonado said, she lost everything that "makes (me) a woman."
But her negative attitude did not last long, for the sake of her sanity and her family's. And this past winter, Florian-Maldonado celebrated one year cancer-free.
"Having faith, and science — they work together. They work miracles," she said.
Dr. Andrew Pecora, chief innovation officer for Hackensack Meridian Health, said the field has seen dramatic advances in the treatment of breast cancer over the past five years.
"Such that women who lived only a year or two when they presented with advanced disease are now living decades," Pecora said.
While it's never easy to tell someone they have cancer, the conversation is less negative in 2018, Pecora said.
"They're now happy to say that, despite the fact you have this breast cancer, we can profoundly help you," Pecora said. "Not only with treatments, but with survival, with minimizing side effects, and getting you back to the life you deserve."
Breast cancer is overwhelmingly a female problem. But on Monday, day two of our series, we'll take a look at the 1 percent — men in New Jersey dealing with this issue.