Dr Belinda Yeo is working to personalise breast cancer treatment, saving women the potentially harmful side effects that go with unnecessary treatments.

If breast cancer is caught early, the vast majority of women will survive and not endure it again. But despite the fairly low risk of cancer recurring, many patients endure ongoing post-surgery treatment including chemotherapy with its potentially harmful side effects and anti-oestrogen therapy, as ‘insurance’ against the cancer.

Belinda wants to find better tests to estimate the risk of a patient’s breast cancer returning. If the risk is low, it means those patients can avoid treatments they don’t need and they won’t have to live with the side effects they can cause.

“Of course, we want to cure our patients but we don’t want to cause them harm for the rest of their lives, and remember, many of these women have many years to live,” Belinda says. “Ultimately, we want to maximise survival and minimise toxicity.”

The side effects of cancer treatments can be severe. Chemotherapy might cause nausea and vomiting, fatigue, hair loss, menopausal symptoms or depression, or more serious problems. Five or more years of anti-oestrogen therapy can ruin sleep, wither a woman’s libido, bring on early menopause, affect fertility and make bones brittle.

Belinda is part of a drive to find better tests to understand each patient’s breast cancer at an individual genetic level. Doctors can use this information to predict how a patient will respond to different treatments, and to estimate the risk of a patient’s breast cancer returning. They can then personalise a treatment plan that is most effective for that patient, and if there is only a low risk of the cancer returning, the patient can avoid treatments they won’t benefit from.

“I’d like to move towards an era where we target our treatments more precisely to those women who have the most to gain from them, and spare women who have little to gain,” Belinda says.

Belinda works as an oncologist at Austin Health and clinical scientist at ONJCRI’s Translational  Breast  Cancer Program, which investigates a number of different breast cancers. She’s part of the Institute’s longstanding tradition of embedding researchers and clinicians in teams.

She also likes to include her patients in the process of translating laboratory findings into clinical practice, actively involving them in exploring their cancer and potential treatments.