What’s new in breast cancer prevention, treatment

Dr. George Zahrah and Dr. Linda T. Vahdat
Dr. George Zahrah and Dr. Linda T. Vahdat

While the subject of cancer is usually one approached with trepidation, Dr. George Zahrah says these are “very exciting times” on the medical front. With some 50 cancer drugs approved within the past year, this “gives you an idea where we are heading,” he told The Bulletin this week.

Zahrah is a medical oncologist and the medical director for cancer genetics at Norwalk Hospital. He will join his colleague Dr. Linda T. Vahdat in the next program of Wilton Library’s Health Literacy Series on Tuesday, May 22, at 7 p.m. in the library. Western Connecticut Health Network is the co-presenter. The Bulletin is the media sponsor.

The program will focus on breast cancer. Zahrah will discuss prevention and screening. Vahdat, who is clinical director of cancer services at Norwalk Hospital and a breast medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering, will discuss targeted therapies for advanced breast cancer.

In terms of prevention, Zahrah said, he will focus on several subjects, the first being data from the Women’s Health Initiative, a long-term national health study involving more than 150,000 participants that has focused on a number of health risks for older women, including breast cancer.

Zahrah will present data related to weight loss and alcohol intake. “I will address those important factors in the general population and targeting people at higher risk, including those who are overweight, obese, or drink too much,” he said.

In terms of medication prevention, there are medications that can be used through risk assessment based on personal history, family history and genetic profile.

He will also talk about identifying patients who should have genetic testing or counseling. “The BRCA gene is the most known, but there are multiple genetic mutations,” he said. “More people are searching commercial products without counseling. We would like to counsel them on doing it the right way.”

Zahrah said he will also “put in a few words about the general recommendations about screening.” He will touch on who would benefit from screening beyond a mammogram or breast ultrasound, when a breast MRI may be indicated.

“I’ll be focusing on particular groups, rather than the politics of when to start mammograms,” he said, acknowledging conflicting information the last few years on when and how often women should start and continue mammograms.

Zahrah, who is also a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, serves as an investigator on several cancer clinical trials. He said there are several being conducted at Norwalk Hospital now, with the potential of adding more with the hospital’s affiliation with Memorial Sloan Kettering.

One trial addresses different aspects of treating breast cancers and lifetime lifestyle modifications. Another is testing a drug to treat one of the most difficult breast cancers, known as triple negative. “It’s a new compound that’s exciting,” he said, adding that four patients have been enrolled in just two weeks.

In addition to new drugs for triple negative breast cancer, there are new drugs for hormone-sensitive breast cancer. “The [drug] pipeline is unbelievably looking exciting,” he said. “Immunotherapy [treatments] are being developed for breast cancer. Really, the last few years have been dramatic.”

To that end, Zahrah said, “the message we want to get across is, Don’t be afraid.” It is easy for even well-educated people to look something up online and be misled.

“We are professionals who do this for a living. We are readily available.”

After the doctors’ presentations, there will be a question-and-answer session moderated by Dr. Saras Nair, former chairman of the Department of Pathology at Norwalk Hospital and a trustee of Wilton Library.

To register for the May 22 program, visit www.wiltonlibrary.org or call 203-762-6334.

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