By Dr. Maria Simbra

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – More and more women are surviving breast cancer, but with that comes the risk of the cancer spreading elsewhere and making it more difficult to treat.

Now, a new treatment is showing promise.

Judi Atchinson has metastatic breast cancer.

“A shock really,” she says, “I didn’t realize I had cancer at all. Then, I thought it was going to be the end.”

The cancer has spread beyond the breast and the lymph nodes under her arm. In her case, it was in her bones.

She tried different medications, but had some setbacks.

“I took that for a while, and that started to not work anymore,” she says.

This condition is daunting.

“We think of it as being incurable, says Allegheny General Hospital Cancer Center cancer specialist Dr. Jane Raymond.

But, for breast cancers with estrogen receptors, there are medicines to keep it in check.

“They feed off estrogen, so an antiestrogen pill, which is what we generally use, can be very effective in controlling disease wherever it is,” Dr. Raymond said.

But, what happens when the cancer comes back, despite this treatment?

A new class of drug can be added.

Cancer cells divide rapidly, and these drugs interfere with proteins important to cell division. They’re called CDK 4/6 inhibitors. Three are currently on the market.

“This can delay the time, by years, that somebody needs to be on chemotherapy,” says Dr. Raymond.

If organs aren’t functioning because of the cancer, chemotherapy is the better choice.

But, these new medicines are ideal for people with metastatic disease and are otherwise healthy.

Bloodwork is monitored every two weeks at first, then monthly. Side effects include a low white blood cell count, risk of infection and diarrhea.

The drugs became available in 2015, so we don’t have long-term outcomes and effects yet.

They are covered by insurance, but the amount of copay and coverage varies widely.

Judi gets her prescription through a drug company program.

“I don’t pay anything for that,” says Judi, “and that’s a very expensive pill. I haven’t paid a nickel, which is pretty darn good.”

These drugs were first FDA-approved in post-menopausal women, but now, pre-menopausal women, too.

Judi is a 10-year survivor, and still has high hopes.

“I’ll stay on this as long as I can,” she says, “I have my kids, and my husband, and you know, I’m still active. I just want to keep going.”

Dr. Maria Simbra