What Breast Cancer Survivors Need to Know About Stem Cells
By Dr. Dipnarine Maharaj M.D.
The fight against breast cancer is a winnable fight. With modern advances in treatment, increased awareness, and early detection, the survival rate for women diagnosed with breast cancer is on the rise.
According to the American Cancer Society, women diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer have a 100% survival rate. Even stage 3 cancer has a 72% survival rate over a period of 5 years. From all indications, it seems that we are winning the fight against breast cancer.
Life after Breast Cancer. What happens after you beat breast cancer? Ask any breast cancer survivor and you’ll immediate find out that nothing is ever the same. Ask a breast cancer survivor who has lived over 20 years post-diagnosis, and you’ll learn that total lifestyle change is required. Reckless choices such as eating a poor diet, not exercising, and excessive stress damage the body that the immune system in a way that the body can no longer take.
The Dangers of Recurrence. Even more alarming is the risk of recurrence, not of breast cancer, but of other types of cancer, most notably leukemia. Studies analyzing SEER data, patients who receive chemotherapy and radiation have an increased risk for cancers such as:
- Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)
- Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)
During breast cancer treatment, the bone marrow is affected with chemotherapy and radiation, causing significant damage to the immune system. While good diet and exercise are steps that everyone can take, often a patient’s damaged immune system allows diseases like AML and MDS to proliferate.
Overall, the risk of developing leukemia post-chemotherapy amongst breast cancer patients is anywhere between 8-17%. In women aged 20-49, the risk of MDS was 30 times that of the normal population.
This is quite alarming because younger people would expect longer survival periods and a higher quality of life. Yet in younger people, we are seeing higher rates of MDS than even people who are in the 65-74+ age brackets.
The Robin Roberts Effect. This is exactly what happened to Robin Roberts, the beloved news anchor from ABC’s Good Morning America. In August of 2007, at the age of 46, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and immediately had surgery. By January of 2008 she had completed eight chemotherapy treatments, followed by more than six weeks of radiation treatment.
Four years later, she was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), a form of leukemia. Her personal battle brought the risk of cancer recurrence to millions and a public will to effectuate change. Be the Match Registry, a nonprofit organization run by the National Marrow Donor Program, experienced a 1,800% spike in donors the day Roberts went public with her illness.
Difficulty Finding a Match. However, those donors for the National Marrow Donor Program would not necessarily be able to access their own cells should they need a stem cell transplant for a blood cancer like MDS. Many times patients with cancer are not able to find an unrelated matching donor from the national donor program (your own cells are always a 100% match for you). Factors such as race and ethnicity play huge roles in determining the eligible donor pool for a particular patient. Minorities are historically underrepresented when it comes to the National Marrow Donor Program.
The Proactive Stem Cell Approach. As breast cancer survivors become more educated on these risks, many are opting to privately collect and store their own healthy adult stem cells post-chemotherapy and radiation, and not rely on potentially finding a donor if their cancer recurs. The idea behind this strategy is that the adult stem cells form the basis of the immune system. When cancer recurs, typically patients have seen their immune function decrease, with markers such as Natural Killer Cell function taking significant drops.
Natural Killer Cells are cells within the immune system that are responsible for killing cancers and other tumors within in the body. As the function of Natural Killer Cells increase, the body’s ability to defend itself against cancers rises as well.
Studies have shown that patients who have received autologous stem cell transplants have improved patient outcomes, faster recovery times, and better long term disease free survival, compared to patients who have undergone chemotherapy and radiation alone.
Having your adult stem cells in the bank is a safety net for breast cancer survivors. If a patient were to ever be diagnosed with a leukemia or a blood cancer, their banked adult stem cells would a powerful tool in the fight against cancer.
Currently the cost of this type of procedure can vary between $15,000-$45,000. For the most part, these procedures are not covered by Medicare or private insurance. As more patients decide to take these types of proactive steps for their health, the cost is anticipated to drop. However, don’t let the cost of the procedure convince you into waiting to collect and store your stem cells.
The Value of the Immune System. As we age our immune system gradually weakens over time. Starting around the age of 30 our immune systems are in a slow gradual decline until somewhere between the ages of 65-74. At that point, our immune system takes a significant drop. In essence, the longer you wait to collect and store your adult stem cells the weaker your immune system will be.
In addition to collecting and storing your stem cells, breast cancer patients should also monitor their immune systems on an annual basis. While many blood tests such as a CBC may turn up normal, there are abnormalities within the immune system that do not show up on regular diagnostic tests. Tracking the immune system gives a great indicator as to the body’s ability to fight cancer and other diseases.
BRCA1 and BRCA2 Risk. Females who have the BRCA1 and the BRCA2 gene for breast cancer, like Angelina Jolie, also fall into the category of those who need to have their immune system checked annually. While the presence of the gene indicates an increased risk for breast cancer, the mere presence of the gene doesn’t guarantee that you will get breast cancer. That’s why it is so important to monitor the immune system. If an abnormality within the immune system presents itself, it can be dealt with early before the spread of a cancer. While some females are opting for invasive mastectomy surgery, like Angelina Jolie, others are choosing to monitor their immune system before taking such drastic action.
Stem Cell Uses. As the benefits for stem cell therapy evolves, so will the amount of uses that are available for your banked adult stem cells. With over 2,000 U.S. Clinical Trials using adult stem cell therapies, there is clear evidence to show that an individual’s own stem cells have a significant capability for growth, repair, and regeneration of damaged tissue and cells in the body. Currently there are more than 70 accepted uses for adult stem cells including the treatment of many blood cancers, bone marrow failures, and immune disorders. For breast cancer patients, the risks are not just from the recurrence of breast cancer itself. With an impaired immune system, female breast cancer survivors are at an elevated risk for other types of cancer and illnesses. That’s why all breast cancer survivors should seriously consider banking and storing their healthy adult stem cells before it is too late.