Over the past several decades, while the incidence of breast cancer has increased, breast cancer mortality has decreased. This decrease is likely due to both early detection and advances in systemic therapy. However, with more widespread use of screening mammography, there are increasing concerns about potential overdiagnosis of cancer.1 One key challenge is that breast cancer is a heterogeneous disease. Improved tools for determining breast cancer biology can help physicians individualize treatments. Patients with low-risk cancers can be approached with less aggressive treatments, thus preventing unnecessary toxicities, while those with higher-risk cancers remain treated appropriately with more aggressive therapies.
Traditionally, adjuvant chemotherapy was recommended based on tumor features such as stage (tumor size, regional nodal involvement), grade, expression of hormone receptors (estrogen receptor [ER] and progesterone receptor [PR]) and human epidermal growth factor receptor-2 (HER2), and patient features (age, menopausal status). However, this approach is not accurate enough to guide individualized treatment approaches, which are based on the risk for recurrence and the reduction in this risk that can be achieved with various systemic treatments. In particular, women with low-risk hormone receptor (HR)–positive, HER2-negative breast cancers could be spared the toxicities of cytotoxic chemotherapies without compromising the prognosis.
Beyond chemotherapy, endocrine therapies also have risks, especially when given over extended periods of time. Recently, extended endocrine therapy has been shown to prevent late recurrences of HR-positive breast cancers. In the National Cancer Institute of Canada Clinical Trials Group’s MA.17R study, extended endocrine therapy with letrozole for a total of 10 years (beyond 5 years of an aromatase inhibitor [AI]) decreased the risk for breast cancer recurrence or the occurrence of contralateral breast cancer by 34%.2 However, the overall survival was similar between the 2 groups and the disease-free survival benefits were not confirmed in other studies.3–5 Identifying the subgroup of patients who benefit from this extended AI therapy is important in the era of personalized medicine. Several tumor genomic assays have been developed to provide additional prognostic and predictive information with the goal of individualizing adjuvant therapies for breast cancer. Although assays are also being evaluated in HER2-positive and triple-negative breast cancer, this review will focus on HR-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer.
Tests for Guiding Adjuvant Chemotherapy Decisions
A 54-year-old postmenopausal woman with no significant past medical history presents with an abnormal screening mammogram, which shows a focal asymmetry in the 10 o’clock position at middle depth of the left breast. Further work-up with a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound of the left breast shows a suspicious hypoechoic solid mass with irregular margins measuring 17 mm. The patient undergoes an ultrasound-guided core needle biopsy of the suspicious mass, the results of which are consistent with an invasive ductal carcinoma, Nottingham grade 2, ER strongly positive (95%), PR weakly positive (5%), HER2-negative, and Ki-67 of 15%. She undergoes a left partial mastectomy and sentinel lymph node biopsy, with final pathology demonstrating a single focus of invasive ductal carcinoma, measuring 2.2 cm in greatest dimension with no evidence of lymphovascular invasion. Margins are clear and 2 sentinel lymph nodes are negative for metastatic disease (final pathologic stage IIA, pT2 pN0 cM0). She is referred to medical oncology to discuss adjuvant systemic therapy.
- Can additional testing be used to determine prognosis and guide systemic therapy recommendations for early-stage HR-positive/HER2-negative breast cancer?
After a diagnosis of early-stage breast cancer, the key clinical question faced by the patient and medical oncologist is: what is the individual’s risk for a metastatic breast cancer recurrence and thus the risk for death due to breast cancer? Once the risk for recurrence is established, systemic adjuvant chemotherapy, endocrine therapy, and/or HER2-directed therapy are considered based on the receptor status (ER/PR and HER2) to reduce this risk. HR-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer is the most common type of breast cancer. Although adjuvant endocrine therapy has significantly reduced the risk for recurrence and improved survival for patients with HR-positive breast cancer,6 the role of adjuvant chemotherapy for this subset of breast cancer remains unclear. Prior to genomic testing, the recommendation for adjuvant chemotherapy for HR-positive/HER2-negative tumors was primarily based on patient age and tumor stage and grade. However, chemotherapy overtreatment remained a concern given the potential short- and long-term risks of chemotherapy. Further studies into HR-positive/HER2-negative tumors have shown that these tumors can be divided into 2 main subtypes, luminal A and luminal B.7 These subtypes represent unique biology and differ in terms of prognosis and response to endocrine therapy and chemotherapy. Luminal A tumors are strongly endocrine responsive and have a good prognosis, while luminal B tumors are less endocrine responsive and are associated with a poorer prognosis; the addition of adjuvant chemotherapy is often considered for luminal B tumors.8 Several tests, including tumor genomic assays, are now available to help with delineating the tumor subtype and aid in decision-making regarding adjuvant chemotherapy for HR-positive/HER2-negative breast cancers.