Anne Jenkins, 62, is the mother of two grown children and has a family history of breast cancer. It had been two years since Anne had her last breast screening, so she had trepidation about getting one.
Since breast cancer ran in Anne’s family, she always opted to have a mammogram and breast ultrasound. After her testing had been completed, an area of abnormality was seen on her left breast. A biopsy resulted in a diagnosis of cancer. “When I heard the word ‘cancer,’ my mind went blank. I was terrified, speechless, and motionless all at the same time,” recounts Anne.
The Columbia, SC resident was immediately referred to a breast surgeon who managed her clinical care within days of her diagnosis. Thankfully, Anne had an early form of cancer, Stage 0 (see below), and her prognosis was favorable. Anne is thankful she did not prolong her breast exams even further down the line.
“Hearing you have cancer will stop you dead in your tracks! I am so thankful I got a grip and scheduled my screening tests. I am also grateful to God that my diagnosis was at an early stage. Since my diagnosis, I have continuously urged women to schedule their yearly mammos and ultrasounds of their breasts, and to absolutely, NOT skip a year,” warns Anne.
Breast cancer facts
Approximately 270,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. About 80 percent of breast cancers are found in women over age 50 — many of whom have no other known risk factors for the disease. Breast cancer risk factors do not mean cancer is inevitable; many women with risk factors never develop breast cancer. Instead, risk factors help to identify women who may benefit most from screening or other preventive measures. It is important to remember that breast cancer can also occur in women with no identifiable risk factors.
Despite the recent decline in breast cancer mortality, African American women continue to die from breast cancer at higher rates than white women. Breast cancer tends to be a more biologically aggressive disease in African Americans than in white women. In addition to biological factors, some disparities reflect social, economic, and cultural barriers disproportionately affecting African American women. Obstacles such as poverty and racism both hinder cancer prevention and control efforts.
Breast cancer does occur in men, especially in older men. And like African American women, Black men are hit harder by breast cancer than their white counterparts. After diagnosis, African American men are three times more likely to die from breast cancer than white men. This difference is probably due to the same factors suggested by research involving African American women.
But disparities in healthcare shouldn’t be any part of the reason for a less favorable outlook after breast cancer treatment. Regardless of gender or ethnicity, do your best to ensure you get the best care possible.
The average woman has approximately a 10 to 15 percent chance of developing breast cancer if she lives into her 90s. On the other hand, the risk of developing breast cancer in a woman with a strong family history of the disease who has inherited one of the genes that predispose her to breast cancer is over 50 percent. All women should discuss guidelines for breast cancer screening with their doctors even if they have a low risk for breast cancer based on their risk factor profile.
Weight gain and obesity are associated with an increased risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. Long-term use of combined oral estrogen-progestin (for five years or more) in women ages 50 to 79 increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer as well as heart disease, stroke, and clots in the legs.
There is a significant relationship between alcohol consumption and an increased risk of breast cancer, which begins with alcohol intake as low as three drinks per week. The risk appears to increase with greater alcohol consumption and additive with the use of menopausal hormone therapy. There does not appear to be a difference in the type of alcohol.
Some studies have shown that high consumption of a diet composed predominantly of fruits and vegetables resulted in a lower risk of breast cancer.
Eating more than five servings of red meat per week may be associated with an increased risk of hormone-positive premenopausal breast cancer.
Dietary soy does not appear to increase breast cancer risk.
There is no strong association between caffeine intake and breast cancer risk.
Breast cancer stages
There are five stages of breast cancer, starting at zero and going up to four. (They are represented by the Roman numerals I, II, III, and IV.) There are several variables within some stages. Tumors are measured in millimeters and centimeters (ten millimeters equal one centimeter).
Stage 0: Within stage 0, there is no evidence that cancer cells or other abnormal cells have invaded neighboring normal tissue.
Stage 1: A very early stage of invasive cancer. At this point, tumor cells have spread to normal surrounding breast tissue but are still contained in a small area.
Stage 2: Describes cancer that is in a limited region of the breast but has grown larger. It reflects how many lymph nodes may contain cancer cells.
Stage 3: The cancer has spread further into the breast, or the tumor has grown larger than in earlier stages.
Stage 4: This is the most advanced stage of breast cancer. It has spread to nearby lymph nodes and distant body parts beyond the breast. This means it possibly involves your organs — such as the lungs, liver, and brain — or your bones.
Mammograms save lives
Since 1990, mammography has helped reduce breast cancer deaths in this country by nearly 40 percent! Even for women 50+, skipping a mammogram every other year would miss up to 30% of cancers.
A mammogram is a specific type of breast exam used to aid in the early detection and diagnosis of breast diseases in women. The approximately 20-minute medical exam uses a noninvasive X-ray targeted to each breast, producing pictures that your doctor can use to identify and treat any abnormal areas, possibly indicating the presence of cancer.
Bottom line, annual mammograms can detect cancer early — when it is most treatable.
Mammograms show changes in the breast up to two years before a patient or physician can feel them. Mammograms can also prevent the need for extensive treatment for advanced cancers and improve the chances of breast conservation. Current guidelines from the American College of Radiology and the Society for Breast Imaging recommend that women receive annual mammograms starting at age 40 — even if they have no symptoms or family history of breast cancer.
Breast ultrasound (or ultrasonography) uses sound waves to create images of your breast tissue. During a breast ultrasound, a probe is placed on the skin of your breast. The probe sends high-frequency sound waves into your breast, which bounce off the tissue and return to the probe as echo waves. The echo waves are then converted to the images you see on the ultrasound machine’s screen.
Breast ultrasound is often used to assess abnormalities found during mammography or a clinical breast exam.
Breast tomosynthesis–3D mammography
Breast tomosynthesis, also called 3-D mammography, is a new technology. It takes images of the breast from many angles and creates a three-dimensional picture of the tissue. Breast tomosynthesis may be particularly useful for women with dense breasts, like breast ultrasound.
Contrast-Enhanced Digital Mammography (CEDM)
Contrast-enhanced digital mammography, or CEDM, combines digital mammography with the injection of a special dye called a contrast agent. Because cancers absorb more of the contrast agent than the surrounding healthy tissue, it is easier for doctors to detect cancers on the mammogram.
CEDM is still a relatively new technology. It may have a role in screening for breast cancer in women at above-average risk or women who have dense breasts.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, so let’s take better care of ourselves and our loved ones! Schedule your or your loved one’s breast screening exam today; it can be lifesaving!
For more information on finding an imaging facility accredited by the American College of Radiology (ACR), call their hotline at 800-227-5463 or visit their website, www.acr.org.