By Dr. Frank L. Urbano, MBA, FACP
Did you know that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime? The good news is, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of getting cancer, including detecting it early, when it’s more treatable. That’s why it’s important to be proactive about your health. As health care professionals, one of our top priorities is educating patients about getting preventive screenings. Breast cancer is no exception. Knowledge and early detection can save lives.
Breast Cancer Basics
Breast cancer starts in the breast when cells begin to grow out of control. Breast cancer cells usually form a tumor that can often be felt as a lump or seen on an X-ray. Although a lump or mass is the most common symptom of breast cancer, other symptoms are also possible. That’s why it’s important to have any breast change checked by a health care provider. While breast cancer occurs mostly in women, men can get breast cancer too.
It’s important to understand that most breast lumps are benign (not cancerous). Non-cancerous breast tumors are abnormal growths, but they do not spread outside of the breast. They are not life-threatening. That said, there are some types of benign breast lumps that can increase a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer. Any breast lump or change needs to be checked by a health care professional to determine if it is benign or malignant (cancerous) and if it might affect your future cancer risk.
Types of breast cancer
Breast cancers can start within different parts of the breast. Most breast cancers begin in the ducts that carry milk to the nipple (ductal cancers). Others start in the glands that make breast milk (lobular cancers). There are also other types of breast cancer that are less common, such as phyllodes tumor and angiosarcoma.
A small number of cancers start in other tissues in the breast. These cancers are called sarcomas and lymphomas and are not really thought of as breast cancers. Many breast cancers are also found on screening mammograms, which can detect cancers at an earlier stage, often before they can be felt, and before symptoms develop.
After a breast cancer diagnosis, doctors will determine what stage it is. The breast cancer staging process is a way for doctors to determine what specific type of cancer is present and the most effective way to treat it.
Early Detection is Key
Although breast cancer is sometimes found after symptoms appear, many individuals with breast cancer have no symptoms. That’s why regular breast cancer screening is so important.
Different tests can be used to screen for breast cancer, the primary one being a mammogram. If your doctor finds an area of concern on a mammogram, or if you have symptoms that could mean breast cancer, your doctor will take a biopsy of your breast, which is a sample of tissue taken to examine more closely.
Once a biopsy is done, breast cancer cells are tested for proteins called estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, and HER2. The tumor cells are also closely looked at in the lab to find out what grade it is. The specific proteins and the tumor grade can help decide treatment options.
Looking at the Numbers
According to the American Cancer Society, when breast cancer is detected early, and is in the localized stage, the five-year relative survival rate is 99 percent. Since 2007, breast cancer death rates have been steady in women younger than 50 but have continued to decrease in older women.
From 2013 to 2018, the death rate went down by one percent each year. These decreases are attributed to earlier discovery of breast cancer through screening and increased awareness, as well as better treatments. Early detection includes doing monthly breast self-exams and scheduling regular clinical breast exams and mammograms.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Each October, to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we encourage both women and men to be proactive when it comes to their health. Breast cancer has better outcomes if detected and treated early. Self-education, awareness, and partnering with your health care provider can make all the difference.
Dr. Frank L. Urbano, MBA, FACP is senior medical director for AmeriHealth New Jersey.