One of breast cancer’s strongest survival tools is early detection |

One of breast cancer’s strongest survival tools is early detection

Doctors recommend that most women start getting annual or biannual mammograms around the age of 40, but it’s important to talk to your doctor about personal risk factors to determine when testing is right for you.
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Early detection matters
  • The 5-year relative survival rate for women with stage 0 or stage I breast cancer is close to 100%.
  • For women with stage II breast cancer, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 93%.
  • The 5-year relative survival rate for stage III breast cancers is about 72%.
*Source: American Cancer Society

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October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Written By Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by Kaiser Permanente

If caught early, the five-year survival rate for women with breast cancer is nearly 100 percent, making early detection the best defense in preventing breast cancer’s development

Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer for women in the United States — at least one out of every eight women will be diagnosed with it, according to the American Cancer Society.

Because early detection is critical, women should follow testing guidelines based on their personal breast cancer risk.

“It’s best to discuss your personal breast cancer risk with your doctor in order to develop a long-term plan to screen for breast cancer,” said Dr. Patricia Dietzgen, Family Medicine Physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Frisco Medical Offices.

Risk factors

The risk of breast cancer increases with age, and inherited genes such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 show a higher risk of developing breast cancer. The majority of breast cancers are diagnosed after the age of 50, Dietzgen said.

In addition to family history, other risk factors include alcohol use, body weight, physical activity level, reproductive and menstrual histories and other factors, according to the American Cancer Society.

“Longer exposure to estrogen over a lifetime or increased amount of estrogen in the body can be associated with increased risk of breast cancer, so for example women who begin their menstrual period at a younger age may have an increased risk,” said Dr. Shannon Garton, Family Medicine Physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Edwards Medical Offices. “Also, women who use hormone replacement therapy may have an increased risk of cancer. Women who are obese or who drink alcohol have higher levels of estrogen in their bodies than thin or abstaining counterparts and this increase in estrogen levels can increase cancer risk.”

Living a healthy lifestyle is a common theme in lowering risks for various illnesses and cancers.

While no food or diet can prevent breast cancer, some foods make the body the healthiest it can be, boost your immune system and keep your risk for breast cancer as low as possible, Garton said.

“Diet is thought to be partly responsible for about 30% to 40% of all cancers,” she said.

Women without high risk factors have the option to start screening with a mammogram — an x-rays that exposes the breast to a small dose of ionizing radiation to produce an image of the breast tissue  — at the age of 40.

Physicians generally recommend that women between the ages of 50 and 74 get annual or biannual mammograms, Dietzgen said, but again it’s up to patients to determine a personal screening plan with their doctor.

“I will still perform clinical breast exams if requested to do so by our patients, but do spend time educating women on the newer guidelines. Once again, it is a discussion and best accomplished with review of personal and family history to set up a long-term plan,” Dietzgen said.

Women with naturally dense, fibrous and glandular breasts, as opposed to fatty breasts, show an increased risk of breast cancer, but routine mammograms might not be able to detect it in this type of breast. Garton said these patients might require more frequent and other types of imaging studies such as ultrasound or MRI.

Symptoms and detection

While some women experience no symptoms, others might feel a new lump in the breast or armpit area, thickening or swollen breasts, dimpling of the skin, nipple discharge, change in breast size or shape and breast pain, Dietzgen said. Because these symptoms can occur due to conditions unrelated to breast cancer, it’s important to see a doctor about them, she said.

Many women worry that a breast lump is cancer. Garton said a majority of breast lumps are not cancerous, however it’s important to have all lumps evaluated by a physician.

Mammograms can show breast lumps before they can be felt, and they also can reveal tiny clusters of calcium called microcalcifications, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. In some cases, a biopsy might be recommended when mammograms are inconclusive.

Dietzgen said mammograms take about 20 to 30 minutes and the actual breast compression — the flattening of the breast in order to provide a clear image — takes about 30 seconds.

Due to the survival rates associated with early detection, it’s important to take preventative measures and seek the recommended tests for your age and risk factor.
“Roughly 70 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors, meaning that the disease occurs largely by chance and according to as-yet-unexplained factors,” Garton said. “Because breast cancer can be invisible and we are not able to truly predict who may get breast cancer, the best measure we have is to do screening regularly to try to catch any cancer which may develop in its earliest stages.”

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