What is HER2-positive breast cancer? HER2-positive breast cancers are breast tumors with high levels of a protein called human epidermal growth factor 2 (HER2). HER2 is a protein that functions as a receptor outside of breast cancer cells. When HER2 receives an activating signal from the body, it promotes cell growth and multiplication. As such, HER2-positive breast cancers may grow quickly and have a high chance of spreading to other parts of the body (metastasis).
The good news is that the outlook for patients with HER2-positive breast cancers has improved greatly over the past decade with new therapies that target HER2.
In many ways, treatment of HER2-positive breast cancer is similar to treatment of HER2-negative breast cancer. It often involves a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, but with the addition of HER2-targeted therapy.
Most HER2-targeted therapies block HER2 receptors from receiving signals that tell the cells to grow and multiply. These targeted therapies can be given before, during or after chemotherapy. They generally don't cause the side effects common with chemotherapy such as nausea, vomiting or hair loss. However, HER2-targeted therapies have unique side effects. A possible side effect involves the heart and is called cardiotoxicity. If you are prescribed a HER2-targeted therapy, ask your provider about its potential side effects.
Cardiotoxicity is the term used for heart damage caused by medications. The form cardiotoxicity takes can range from temporary changes in heart function that you might not notice to more serious conditions such as heart failure. It also can be life threatening.
Most cases of cardiotoxicity from HER2-targeted therapies are without symptoms and last for a short time. However, more serious reactions can occur.
HER2-targeted therapies block HER2 receptors from receiving signals that tell the cells to grow and multiply. Blocking HER2 on cancer cells is good because it stops the message telling tumor cells to grow and spread. However, HER2 receptors are also on healthy cells, such as heart muscle cells. In the heart, HER2 activation is important for cell survival, particularly during stressful situations, and thus blocking HER2 may cause heart damage.