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Breast Cancer in women

Herceptin (trastuzumab)

Herceptin (trastuzumab) is a biological therapy (targeted therapy) that may be given to some women and men with breast cancer. It is a type of drug known as a monoclonal antibody. It works by attaching to HER2 receptors (proteins) on the surface of breast cancer cells. This stops the cancer cells from dividing and growing. It may also allow the body’s defences to fight better against the cancer cells.

Herceptin can reduce the chance of breast cancer coming back after initial treatment for early breast cancer. But it is only effective for women whose breast cancer cells have a large number of the HER2 receptors on their surface. This is known as being HER2-positive. Between 15 and 25 out of every 100 women with breast cancer (15-25%) have HER2 positive cancers (Macmillan Cancer Support Jan 2016). In women who have early breast cancer and are HER2-positive, Herceptin may be used alongside or after other treatments such as chemotherapy.

Tess, who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 33, was given Herceptin regularly for a year.

 

Tess was prescribed tamoxifen for five years and given Herceptin for a year after chemotherapy....

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Age at interview: 38
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 33
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There was a long time working up to when I had to have this new drug Herceptin. And first of all the first test didn’t look like I had, and they sent it off to something called Fish, which then showed that it was HER-positive. So I think, you know, having thought that I’d just have the chemo, then I found that I had to have another year of treatment. But again, nothing felt bad that was going to help. And I was happy to sort of do anything. And also the first results that I had back was also that it was hormone sensitive, so I take tamoxifen. But I think that felt like that was a positive thing because I knew that it meant that it was more amenable to treatment.

Side effects are usually mild, but some women may have flu-like symptoms, diarrhoea, headaches or an allergic reaction. In some women, Herceptin may cause damage to the heart muscle, which could lead to heart failure. If this happens the Herceptin will be stopped. Usually, the effect on the heart is mild and reversible. All women on this medication are advised to have a scan to check on their heart every 3 months (an echocardiogram). Because the long term effects of any heart damage is not known, Herceptin is not given to women who have serious heart problems.

Herceptin is usually given by a drip (infusion) through a fine tube (cannula) inserted into a vein. As an alternative, it may be given as an injection just under the skin surface (sub-cutaneous). It can usually be given in the outpatient department at the hospital. The first dose is given slowly, usually over about an hour and a half. After this, doses normally take about 30 minutes. After the infusion women need to stay for a short time to make sure that they don't have a reaction to the Herceptin. The drug may be given once a week or once every three weeks.

 

Tess had no side effects with Herceptin. She describes the procedure and said she found it...

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Age at interview: 38
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 33
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It was just a one trip to the chemo suite, and so putting a line in and then hooking you up. And I think it was a couple of hours just of a bag dripping in. But it was quite different from the other chemo because it didn’t, you knew you weren’t going to then feel all odd and have to go to bed for a few days. So it was literally just like going to the chemo suite, a few hours of a bag and then I had to have heart scans through it, so that was I suppose the only other complication. I had to have two heart scans while I was having it. Well...

Just to make sure everything?

Yeah, just to make sure everything was okay. But in terms of the actual Herceptin, didn’t have side effects for me, and I think that’s quite standard.

And so you were there for two hours?

Yeah.

Was there a nurse or with you, or you…?

Yeah, I tended to take a friend with me or a book or something. In fact a couple of times I took the baby with me because it was just sort of nice to have her there when she was very little. And I remember those times being quite peaceful, quite you know, you’re actually forced to, especially when you’ve got small children, you’re forced to sit still and relax really. So it wasn’t that bad.

Healthtalk has a whole site on breast cancer in men, for more information see 'Herceptin for men with breast cancer.'

Last reviewed August 2018.
Last updated August 2018.


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