What Is HER2-Positive Breast Cancer?

HER2-positive breast cancer is a subtype of breast cancer that affects about 20 percent of breast cancer patients. Around fifty percent of HER2-positive cancers also have hormone receptors for estrogen and/or progesterone. HER2, which stands for human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, is a gene in the cancer cell that makes the HER2-receptor protein. It is thought that signaling through the HER2 receptor is vital for the normal growth and spread of breast cells. Cancers that are HER2-positive can have either too many copies of the HER2 gene, or too many copies of the HER2 receptor, which causes cancer cells to grow.

How is HER2-positive breast cancer diagnosed?

The HER2 status of the breast cancer cells is determined through a biopsy. Pathologists use a variety of different tests to determine how many HER2 gene or receptors are in a patient’s cancer cells.

How is HER2-positive breast cancer treated?

While it varies for every patient, most treatment plans for HER2-positive breast cancer include both chemotherapy as well as a targeted medication against HER2. The most commonly used medication for HER2-positive breast cancer is Herceptin (trastuzumab) which is a monoclonal antibody against the HER2 receptor. The combination of chemotherapy and Herceptin can block HER2 signaling pathway, stopping cancer cell growth and leading to destruction of cancer cells. If a HER2-positive cancer also has hormone receptors, medications targeting hormone receptors may also be used as part of treatment. Although HER2-positive breast cancer can be more aggressive, current therapies are very effective and investigators with the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers are leading and participating in several clinical trials looking to improve treatment for this subtype.

5 thoughts on “What Is HER2-Positive Breast Cancer?”

  1. Dear Debbie–

    Thank you for your comment and for reading Insight. Risk of recurrence from a any breast cancer depends on assessment of both the anatomic features of a cancer (stage, nodal involvement) and well as the biologic features (status of ER, HER2, grade), in addition to the health of the person with the cancer diagnosis. Discussion of an individual person’s risk of cancer recurrence from her breast cancer diagnosis, as well as the potential benefits gained from anti-cancer therapies, is typically part of an initial consultation with medical oncology. Although HER2 positive cancers may have a more aggressive growth pattern and carry more risks, methods of treatment for HER2 positive cancers have improved substantially in the past decade, and women with this diagnosis are doing better than ever before.

    I hope this is helpful. Wishing you all the best.

  2. My daughter is Her2nu positive & estrogen positive. In 2011 she had a bilateral mastectomy. In 2015 she starts to have back pain. She now has metastatic breast cancer. She has had radiation, chemo, and two different immunotherapy treatments since January. Her first scan was awful & second one clean. Are there things coming in the near future for her? I know it is not curable, but she is 39 & has a lot of life to live.

  3. Dear Linda:

    Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry to hear about your daughter but glad to hear the second scan was clean! We recently recorded a podcast that talks about metastatic breast cancer research: you can find that at this page — http://blog.dana-farber.org/insight/2016/03/cancer-conversations-podcast-episode-5-whats-new-in-metastatic-breast-cancer-treatment-and-research/

    It’s important though for you or your daughter (or both) to have a discussion with her oncologist about research and treatment that might be appropriate for her.

    Wishing the best for you and your daughter.

  4. HER2-positive breast cancer is a breast cancer that tests affirmative for a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), which promotes the growth of cancer cells.
    In about 1 of every 5 breast cancers, the cancer cells have a gene alteration that makes an excess of the HER2 protein. HER2-positive breast cancers tend to be more forceful than other types of breast cancer. They’re less likely to be receptive to hormone therapy, though many people with HER2-positive breast cancer can still benefit from hormone therapy.

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