Not all breast cancers are created equal

One in nine New Zealand women will be diagnosed with breast cancer over their lifetime giving us the 7th highest incidence rate of this disease in the world. I was fortunate enough to attend a summit hosted by Breast Cancer Cure, New Zealand’s only not-for-profit organisation solely dedicated to finding a cure for breast cancer through research. The summit featured leading oncologists and researchers talking about the very complex nature of breast cancer and how to treat it effectively.

Having worked in the private health insurance industry for more than a decade I was surprised by how much I learned over the course of this day with the real stand out for me being that all breast cancers are not created equal. The disease differs from woman to woman depending on a host of complex genetic factors and the key take away for me as an insurance professional, and as a woman, is the importance of early detection.

Genetic factors

An important factor in successfully treating breast cancer is first identifying exactly what sort of tumour a patient has. One of the key differentiators between tumours is how they respond to oestrogen. Approximately three quarters of breast cancers in New Zealand are hormone responsive tumours. This means that the hormones a woman’s body creates impacts on the rate at which her tumour grows and spreads, therefore treatment to reduce or remove the production of these hormones is helpful in fighting the cancer.

Another variant are triple negative breast cancers (TNBC) that represent about 15% of breast cancer diagnosed in New Zealand and tests negative for all three receptors (oestrogen, progesterone and HER2). These cancers tend to impact younger women and have very limited treatment options.

In addition, another important variable is whether the tumour is HER2 positive or negative. HER2 positive cancer is generally more aggressive than HER2 negative and as such requires more targeted treatment such as Trastuzumab (Herceptin) used in combination with more traditional chemotherapy.

Early detection

It is easy to feel helpless in the face of genetics, but overall the strongest message throughout the day was how important early detection is. Patients diagnosed with breast cancer at stage one, irrespective of their tumour’s genetic type, have far higher survival rates as the disease has not yet spread. Conversely being diagnosed at stage four is a grim prospect.

Regular screening is an important factor in diagnosing cancers before they can be felt and all women, especially those not yet eligible for publically funding screening should be checking themselves regularly. Our Private Health Plus product offers a contribution towards regular screening and comprehensive cover for cancer care should a diagnosis unfortunately occur.

Pic credit: William Bout, Unsplash.