Breast Cancer Survival Rates Are Climbing
The outlook for women with breast cancer is improving constantly. Due to increased awareness, opportunities for early detection, and treatment advances, survival rates continue to climb. While around 200,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed each year with breast cancer, the prognosis has never been better.
Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Breast cancer may or may not cause symptoms. Some women may discover the problem themselves, while others may have the abnormality first detected on a screening exam. Breast pain is not a common symptom of breast cancer. Some of the possible signs and symptoms include:
- Non-painful lumps or massesK/li>
- Lumps or swelling under the armsK/li>
- Nipple skin changes or dischargeK/li>
- Changes in the feel, size, or shape of the breast tissue
Inflammatory Breast Cancer
Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare type of cancer that often does not cause a breast lump or mass. As seen in this photo, it often causes thickening and pitting of the skin, like an orange peel. There may also be a skin rash or reddening of the skin. Inflammatory cancer of the breast typically has a fast growth rate.
Importance of Mammograms
Early detection of breast cancer is important for the best outcome. Mammograms are X-rays of the breast that can detect tumors at a very early stage, before they would be felt or noticed otherwise. The American Cancer Society recommends that women at average risk have a mammogram every year starting at age 40. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women from 50 to 74 years of age have a screening mammogram every 2 years. It also suggests that women under age 50 consult with their doctor to determine the best screening schedule for their individual situation.
Breast MRI and Ultrasound
Sometimes a breast ultrasound is ordered in addition to a mammogram. An ultrasound can demonstrate fluid-filled cysts that are not cancerous. Ultrasounds may also be recommended for routine screening tests in some women at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
Many women grew up learning that they should perform routine breast self-exams. Recently, studies have shown that these exams are not as important as once believed in the early detection of cancer. Experts recommend that women be aware of their breasts and notice any changes, rather than performing checks on a regular schedule. Women who choose to do self-exams should be sure to discuss the technique with their doctor.
Finding a Lump
Remember that the majority (about 80%) of breast lumps are not due to cancer. Cysts, benign tumors, or changes in consistency due to the menstrual cycle can all cause benign breast lumps. Still, it's important to let your doctor know about any lumps or changes in your breast that you find. Early detection of breast cancer is associated with high cure rates.
Breast Cancer Biopsy
A biopsy is the most certain way to determine whether a breast lump is cancerous. Biopsies may be taken through a needle or through a minor surgical procedure. The results can also determine the type of breast cancer that is present in many cases (there are several different types of breast cancer). Treatments are tailored to the specific type of breast cancer that is present.
Hormone-Sensitive Breast Cancer
For example, a biopsy can tell whether the breast cancer has receptors for estrogen (ER-positive) and//or progesterone (PR-positive). This means the tumors grow in response to these hormones. About two-thirds of breast cancers are hormone receptor-positive. Medications can be given that act to help prevent growth of the tumor from stimulation by these hormones. The image shows a molecular model of the estrogen receptor.
HER2-Positive Breast Cancer
HER-2 is a protein that is expressed at a high level by about 20% of breast cancers. This is known as having HER-2-positive cancer. Having this receptor means the cancer tends to grow and spread faster than other forms of breast cancer, but there are special treatments available for this type of tumor. The image shows molecular detection of the HER-2 receptor in a breast cancer cell.
Stages of Breast Cancer
Staging is the process of determining to what extent a tumor has spread within the body. Staging takes place after breast cancer has been diagnosed. Breast cancer is staged from 0 to 4, depending upon how far it has spread. Both the stage and type of breast cancer are important to determine the best treatment plan.
Survival Rates For Breast Cancer
Survival in breast cancer depends upon the extent of spread, of stage. Cancers that are found early are often localized to the breast. According to the American Cancer Society, women with early stage (stage 1) breast cancer have a 5-year survival rate of 100%. Women with cancer that has spread to distant sites in the body (stage 4) have only a 20% chance of surviving 5 years; but this rate can improve as advances are made in treatment.
Breast Cancer Surgery
There are different surgical procedures available to treat breast cancer. A lumpectomy or breast-conservation surgery removes the abnormal area of tissue. Removing the entire breast is known as mastectomy. Your doctor can help you decide which surgery is best for your individual situation.
Breast Cancer - Radiation Therapy
Radiation therapy can be used after breast cancer surgery, or it may be used in addition to chemotherapy for widespread cancer. The high-energy radiation kills cancer cells. This treatment does have side effects, which can include swelling of the area, tiredness, or a sunburn-like sensation.
Breast Cancer - Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy drugs are given to kill cancer cells that are located anywhere in the body. It can be administered by IV solution, by pill, or by an injection, depending upon the drug. Sometimes chemotherapy is given after surgery to help prevent the cancer from recurring. Side effects of chemotherapy can include risk of infection, nausea, fatigue, and hair loss.
Breast Cancer - Hormone Therapy
ER- and PR-positive breast cancers grow in response to hormones, so hormone therapy that blocks the action of hormones can be given to women whose breast cancer is hormone receptor-positive. It is usually given after surgery, but it can also be given to reduce the chance of developing breast cancer in women at high risk.
Targeted Drug Therapies for Breast Cancer
Targeted therapies are newer treatments for breast cancer. They act upon specific proteins within cancer cells, like the HER-2 protein discussed earlier. Targeted therapies can stop the HER-2 protein from stimulating tumor growth in cancers that have this protein. Targeted therapies have fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy and are often used in combination with chemotherapy.
Life After Breast Cancer
Cancer treatment can be both physically and emotionally exhausting. It can be difficult to keep up with activities of daily life, and you may feel isolated or overwhelmed. Friends and family can be invaluable sources of support and assistance during this time. Some people choose to join a local or an online support group to share their experiences.
Breast Reconstructive Surgery
Many women opt to have reconstructive surgery after breast cancer surgery. Reconstructive procedures can use implants or tissues obtained from other locations in the body. These procedures can be done at the time of mastectomy, or they may be performed months or even years later.
A breast form is an alternative to reconstructive surgery. This is a prosthetic device that is worn inside a bra to permit a balanced appearance when clothed. Breast prosthetic devices can be covered by insurance plans.
Why Did I Get Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer occurs in both men and women, but it is about 100 times more likely to affect women than men. Women over age 55 and those with a close relative who has had the condition are at greatest risk for developing breast cancer. Still, up to 80% of women who do get breast cancer do not have a relative with the disease.
Breast Cancer Genes
Certain inherited genetic mutations dramatically increase a women’s risk of breast cancer. The most common of these are genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Women who inherit mutations in these genes have up to an 80% chance of developing breast cancer.
Risk Factors You Can Control
Other factors that can raise the risk of getting breast cancer include not getting enough exercise, drinking more than one alcoholic drink per day, and being overweight. Some kinds of hormone therapy and birth control pills can also elevate risk, but the risk returns to normal after stopping these medications. Some studies have shown that regular physical activity may help lower the risk of recurrence in women who have survived breast cancer.
Breast Cancer Research
Doctors continue to search for more effective and tolerable treatments for breast cancer. The funding for this research comes from many sources, including advocacy groups throughout the country. Many of the 2.5 million breast cancer survivors and their families choose to participate in walk-a-thons and other fundraising events. This links each individual fight against cancer into a common effort for progress.
More Reading on Breast Cancer