Women’s cancers: Support is vital in, and after, cancer treatment

March 17, 2014 | by

In this series – this part focuses on the need for support during, and after, treatment – we explore crucial strides made against women's cancers by City of Hope researchers during the past year. The projects are many and varied, involving the basics of fighting cancer, analyses of who's at greatest risk, the search for surprising new therapies, the testing of new treatments, and the follow-up with survivors and their partners.

Each study plays a role. Each adds to what we know about cancer. Each brings us closer to cures.
In Part 1, we explained ways in which researchers are seeking to fight cancer through basic science.
In Part 2, we showed how researchers are trying to better understand risks and prevention.
In Part 3, we explored the search for new treatments.
In Part 4, we highlighted some upcoming clinical trials.
Part 5: Helping women thrive during, and after, cancer treatment
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Research to help older women

Arti Hurria, M.D., director of City of Hope’s Cancer and Aging Research Program and associate professor of medical oncology, is collaborating with researchers from across the country on several important projects. In one ongoing nationwide collaborative study with more than 15 institutions, and funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Hurria is evaluating risk factors for toxicity in older women receiving cancer treatment.

older women

Older women with breast cancer have unique needs. City of Hope researchers are helping identify those needs.

The team’s goal is to develop questionnaires and blood tests that will give the physicians insight into a patient’s risk for side effects, so that care can be tailored accordingly. The Breast Cancer Research Foundation awarded Hurria and her team additional funds to enable them to understand the impact of breast cancer and its treatment on a patient’s physical function, comparing patients with breast cancer to an age-matched group who does not have breast cancer.

Hurria was also awarded funds from the NIH to study the impact of cancer and cancer therapies on cognitive aging in survivors of breast cancer. Another recent study explored the impact of aromatase inhibitors (a common breast cancer therapy) on cognitive function in older women; that study was published by the journal Clinical Breast Cancer. Hurria’s leading-edge research is improving treatment standards for older breast cancer patients around the world.

Tackling obesity after treatment

Research suggests that women treated with chemotherapy to overcome breast cancer develop metabolic syndrome at a faster rate. This term describes a dangerous group of health factors, such as large waist size, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, that increase risk for diabetes and heart disease, among other chronic conditions.

Joanne Mortimer, M.D., director of the Women's Cancers Program, is studying a group of women with breast cancer, before and after treatment, to understand whether their risk is related to treatment or other factors, like aging or menopause. This research could drive treatment decisions so that physicians can help women with breast cancer avoid the risk for metabolic syndrome.

weight gain after breast cancer

Weight gain can follow treatment for breast cancer. City of Hope researchers are exploring the reasons why this happens.

In related research, Shiuan Chen, Ph.D., professor and chair of cancer biology, has shown that using aromatase inhibitors, an important and effective therapy for women with breast cancer, can put women at risk for obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. He is now studying the side effects of aromatase inhibitors to find ways to combat obesity and insulin resistance before they occur.

Chen’s research promises to heal women fighting cancer while also addressing serious risk for diabetes and other life-threatening conditions.

Addressing "chemo brain"

Women being treated with chemotherapy for breast cancer can experience impaired cognitive function, commonly known as “chemo brain.”

Sunita Patel, Ph.D., assistant professor of populations sciences and supportive care medicine, is leading a three-year study to track cognitive functioning in survivors of breast cancer. Her preliminary results show that many women experience a dip in cognitive functioning after treatment, and then improvement in the years following.

Now, Patel is following these women to learn if cognitive recovery continues into the next year, and also looking for biomarkers that may indicate a predisposition toward altered cognitive status. This research could serve as a powerful tool to drive treatment that heals without difficult side effects.

Support not just for the patient — but also their partners

Research shows that one of the most important factors in helping women cope with cancer is the presence of a supportive partner. City of Hope’s Department of Supportive Care has pioneered a program to support both women battling breast cancer and their partners.

Over the past three years, Matthew Loscalzo, L.C.S.W., the Liliane Elkins Endowed Professor in Supportive Care Programs, and his team, including Courtney Bitz, L.C.S.W., have led efforts to assess 86 women and their partners. Their work is part of an innovative strengths-based couple intervention known as the Partners’ Clinic.

Together with Loscalzo, Bitz is now translating this important information to build a new model program of patient and partner support and education called Couples Coping with Cancer Together. She has developed a screening tool to identify couples who are in distress and can most benefit from being a part of the program. The program will eventually be expanded to include all cancer patients and their partners in the Women’s Cancers Program at City of Hope.

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Learn more about our Women's Cancers Program.

Women around the world look to City of Hope for leading-edge research and novel therapies that will help them to overcome cancer. Your support advances these critical treatments — and gives women new hope. Thank you for supporting the Women’s Cancers Program, and for all that you make possible for patients here and around the world.

Learn more about helping City of Hope.