It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. What Do I Need to Know?
Written By: Medhavi Gupta, MD, Program in Women's Oncology, Women & Infants Hospital on November 04, 2022
How common is breast cancer?
In the United States, breast cancer is one of the most common causes of cancer in those assigned female at birth – second only to skin cancers. It is also the second most common cause of cancer death after lung cancer. Based on the estimates from American Cancer Society for the year 2022, around 290,210 individuals will be diagnosed with breast cancer and more than 43,250 will likely die of breast cancer. An average, about 1 in 8 of those assigned female at birth (around 13%) in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.
Why is it important to detect breast cancer early?
The goal is to detect breast cancer through screening tests- before one develops any symptoms. Detecting breast cancer at an early stage is extremely important for two main reasons:
When cancer is detected early, it is more likely to be cured and patients have a better long-term prognosis. For localized disease - which means when the cancer is still limited to the breast - the 5-year survival rate is nearly 99%. When the disease is locally advanced - meaning it has spread to nearby areas such as lymph nodes - the 5-year survival rate drops to nearly 86%. Unfortunately, when patients have stage IV or distant disease, the cancers become incurable, and the 5-year survival rate is nearly 29%.
The other important advantage for early detection for breast cancer is patients with early-stage tumors are less likely to need aggressive treatments such as chemotherapy and surgeries such as mastectomy which is removal of the entire breast.
How can breast cancer be detected early and should I be getting breast cancer screening?
Numerous studies to date have shown regular mammograms are one of the best screening tests for early detection of breast cancer. Mammograms are essentially low-dose X-rays used to look for abnormalities in the breast tissue.
Recommendations for breast cancer screening can vary in different parts of the world. In general, those over 40 should get a yearly mammogram. Certain individuals are considered high-risk for breast cancer because they have a personal or family history of breast cancer, or have a known genetic mutation such as BRCA gene mutation, or received radiation therapy to chest wall before the age of 30 years, etc. It is recommended that these high-risk individuals start breast cancer screening at the age of 30, which is usually performed with a combination of mammograms and breast MRIs.
What happens if my mammogram shows an abnormality?
If an abnormality is detected on a screening mammogram, it’s extremely important to determine if it is cancerous. Patients are usually called to undergo additional imaging such as a repeat mammogram or an ultrasound. In case of a persistent abnormality, patients are typically advised to undergo a biopsy – which is sampling the area with a needle under imaging guidance.
What are some of the symptoms related to breast cancer?
If symptoms related to breast cancer develop, it is critical to seek medical attention, as soon as possible to have appropriate diagnostic testing done. Symptoms related to breast cancer include, but are not limited to:
A lump in breast and/or armpit
Changes in skin such as redness and/or swelling
Changes in nipple such as discharge or retraction
Pain in breast and/or nipple
It is also critical a patient go to a state-of-the-art facility for breast cancer screening and treatment. At Care New England, we offer a wide range of imaging modalities for breast cancer including 3D mammogram, digital tomosynthesis, breast ultrasounds, breast MRIs, and biopsies. In addition, we have a wonderful team of breast surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, and genetic counselors. We also participate in several breast cancer clinical trials - looking at newer treatment modalities.
Remember, screening mammograms save lives. Scheduling a mammogram is one of the best things you can do to take care of yourself, and breast cancer awareness month is the perfect reminder to do so.