By Emily Williams
Over the past 30 years or so, Dr. Andres Forero has developed a “love” for one of the most prevalent forms of cancer.
As more attention has been focused on breast cancer, a vast array of research has been concentrated on the disease, leading to a rapidly growing understanding of the disease and more opportunities to find treatments.
If that wasn’t enough to seal Forero’s affinity for the cancer, it is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women.
“Over the last 15 years, our understanding of the biology of the disease has allowed us to find amazing treatments and a better prognosis for patients,” he said.
Upon returning to the University of Alabama at Birmingham after working in Colombia, Forero had the opportunity to continue his breast cancer research, aiding Dr. Albert LoBuglio, whom he identifies as one of the most important researchers for the disease.
His work and the work of others around the world have led to a breast cancer revolution, centered on one simple finding: There are different types of breast cancer.
“Before, we were just treating every breast cancer in the same way,” Forero said. “It was much like pancreatic cancer is right now. Every patient is given the same treatment, because we know very little about the disease.”
Today, when Forero creates a treatment for a patient, he is able to identify whether the tumor is hormone driven, triple-negative and/or genetic – each with their own subcategories. Triple-negative breast cancer is the main focus of Forero’s research.
“It is one of the more interesting forms because it is bad,” Forero said. “It makes up about 15 to 20 percent of cases and is more prevalent in underserved populations. We see it more in African-American, Hispanic and younger women.”
The goal for Forero’s research is to work toward a future, preferably in the next 15 to 20 years, when various subcategories of triple-negative breast cancer are identified so that patient-specific treatments can be developed.
“That’s the future of medicine in general, the idea of personalized medicine,” Forero said. “We want to be able to identify something very special in each patient’s case and that will allow us to provide the most effective treatment.”
It’s a future that could not have been imagined 35 to 40 years ago, Forero said, when a breast cancer patient received treatment similar to that any other cancer patient would undergo.
UAB’s Comprehensive Cancer Center sees roughly 550 to 650 new breast cancer patients a year, a number Forero said is growing to include a wider group of ages. During a regular afternoon of seeing patients on Sept. 29, six of Forero’s new patients were younger than 40 years of age.
“It used to be the case that breast cancer was more a disease of the older ages, in the 50s to 80s, but we are now seeing much younger patients, from the 20s to 40s age group,” Forero said.
Improving the Odds
Though a bright future of treatment is near, there are a few tried and true tips that Forero said will lead to a better prognosis.
Number one, a woman should always be aware of her own breasts and self-examine two to three times a year. If something feels different or strange, never hesitate to bring it to a doctor’s attention.
Number two, maintain a healthy lifestyle, because women who are overweight have a much higher risk of developing breast cancer. Avoid the ever-evolving list of things that claim to cause or prevent cancer. Forero’s recipe for healthy living has only two ingredients: exercise and a healthy diet.
“I dislike the word diet,” Forero said. “It sounds like you are restricting yourself or giving something up. You should be aware of what you are eating and be sure to consume a healthy variety of foods.”
Number three, keep your family history in mind. A family history doesn’t mean you will or won’t develop breast cancer; in fact, 92 percent of cases aren’t caused by a gene. But, those 7 percent to 8 percent of women with an offending gene should strongly consider participating in a high-risk clinical study, Forero said.