Living With HER2-Positive Breast Cancer – Tips for Managing Your Journey

When cancer cells are HER2-positive, they have the HER2 gene and protein mutated. This makes the cancer grow faster than normal.

A person is considered cured when they have no evidence of cancer after treatment. This can mean either partial or complete remission.

Breast cancer that is HER2-positive has a higher risk of spreading (metastasizing). This type of breast cancer has a lower survival rate than other types. These rates are improving due to advances in treatment.

Managing Your Symptoms

You can manage your risk even though you cannot prevent HER2-positive cancer. You should know the symptoms and signs and seek a diagnosis if you find a lump. Palliative treatment can help ease your symptoms and side effects so that you can continue to enjoy your life during treatment.

HER2 is the gene that produces proteins that signal breast cells whether to stop or grow. Breast cancer cells can grow faster than usual with extra copies of the HER2 gene. This leads to tumors. Doctors test a lump by looking for the proteins (HER2 antibodies) and counting the number of copies of the HER2 gene on chromosome 17 in the cancerous cells.

Cancers that have too many HER2 gene copies are more likely than others to spread quickly to other parts of the body, like the lungs or bones. Breast cancer that is HER2-positive grows more rapidly than different types and is more difficult to treat. However, it can still be treated.

HER2-positive cancer is called “curable” when it stays in remission for years, with no traces of the disease detected in the body. It may recur, but when it does, it is often less severe than the first time.

Managing Your Treatment

Managing your treatment is one of the key aspects of living with HER2-positive breast cancers. Your doctor will decide what to do based on the type and stage of your cancer and how much it has spread. The HER2 status helps determine your specific plan because it can influence how the tumor responds to chemotherapy and other treatments.

The HER2 gene creates proteins that help manage how cells grow and repair themselves. When the HER2 protein becomes overexpressed, it signals cancerous cells to keep growing, which can lead to tumors. This type of tumor is more likely to spread (metastasize) to other body parts than non-HER2-positive cancers.

Many women with HER2-positive cancer get a combination of therapies, including chemotherapy and a drug targeting HER2 directly. They may first get a type of chemotherapy called neoadjuvant therapy, which can shrink the size of a tumor before doctors remove it (in surgery). After that, they might receive adjuvant therapy, in which they take HER2-directed medication to destroy any remaining cancer cells in the body.

HER2-directed therapy includes trastuzumab, pertuzumab, and tyrosine kinase inhibitor therapy. They work by attaching themselves to HER2-positive cancer cells, blocking incoming growth signals. They tend to cause fewer side effects than conventional chemotherapy, which can also damage your body’s healthy cells.

Managing Your Side Effects

If you’re HER2-positive, your cancer cells grow faster and spread more easily than those without. However, advances in treatment are improving the outlook for many people with HER2-positive breast cancer.

How HER2-positive breast cancer is diagnosed: A doctor tests a tumor sample for the HER2 protein. This test can be run with a blood sample or tissue biopsy.

Treatment for HER2-positive breast cancer often includes chemotherapy and targeted therapy. Chemotherapy is the use of powerful drugs to destroy cancerous cells in all parts of the body. Drugs that target only specific types of cancer cells are called targeted therapies. Trastuzumab, or Herceptin, is the most commonly used HER2-targeted treatment for early-stage HER2-positive cancer. This drug attaches to the HER2 and prevents it from receiving chemical signals that trigger growth.

Treatments that target HER2 are typically administered intravenously (IV) or via injection. Neratinib, also known as Nerlynx, is taken in pill form. Most insurance plans cover these medications through their prescription drug coverage. Many cancer centers offer resources to help you if you have difficulty affording your medication.

People with HER2-positive or other types of breast cancer can experience social, emotional and physical effects. Support from family and friends can be crucial in helping people cope. They can listen, offer support and encourage them to seek assistance.

Managing Your Relationships

A diagnosis of HER2-positive breast cancer is likely to stir up a wide range of emotions. This is normal and a healthy way to process this news. You can help to manage your feelings by identifying and talking through them with others, such as a supportive friend or counselor.

Women with HER2-positive breast cancer often report feelings of sadness or depression. These are common responses to loss and a part of grief that may come in waves throughout your journey. Sadness that doesn’t pass is a sign of depression, which is treatable.

Anger is another emotion that may surface as you navigate HER2-positive breast cancer. Anger can be a natural response to fear and frustration over your situation. This can be helpful if you can express your anger healthily, such as venting to a trusted friend or releasing it through exercise. Anger that’s left unmanaged can lead to stress and anxiety.

Many women diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer are in close relationships impacted by the disease. It’s important to consider how this illness will impact your relationship, including your role in each other’s daily lives. For example, if you’re the one who normally manages household finances, consider working together to develop plans to cover expenses while you both focus on treatment.