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Published on October 22, 2013

Beyond Awareness: Risks, Screenings and What Comes After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

In Order To Go Beyond Awareness, Dr. Michael Frontiera Shares Basic Facts About Risk Factors, Screening Recommendations, Treatments and Methods of Prevention

According to the American Cancer Society more than 230,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this year. Breast cancer comes with many questions, but with few simple answers: When should a woman get screened for breast cancer? What does a diagnosis really mean? What are common treatment options? In an effort to go beyond awareness, here are some breast cancer basics.

What is my risk for breast cancer?

All women are at risk of developing breast cancer. The American Cancer Society reports that the chance of a woman having invasive breast cancer in her life is roughly one in eight.

While some risk factors you can’t change – like gender, age and family history – some lifestyle choices can increase your risk for developing breast cancer. Some contraceptive methods and post-menopausal hormone therapies have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. Drinking alcohol and being overweight or obese can also increase your risk of developing breast cancer.

“Certain lifestyle choices can also decrease your risk of developing breast cancer,” says Dean Clinic Oncologist Dr. Michael Frontiera. “Studies suggest that breastfeeding and regular exercise, even just brisk walking for a few hours each week, can reduce a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.”

More research is being done to find other ways women can decrease their risk.

Once I know my risk, when should I be screened for breast cancer?

By age 20, women should start doing monthly breast self-exams and can expect to have a clinical breast exam done by their doctor each year.

“The risk of breast cancer increases with age and screening needs increase proportional to age,” says Dr. Frontiera. “It also depends on family history.”

While there is some debate over when annual mammogram screenings should begin, most health organizations recommend annual mammograms starting at age 50. Screening recommendations can vary depending on your risk for breast cancer. If you have questions about your breast cancer screening needs, talk with your doctor.

What happens if I find a lump in my breast?

“If a woman has a concern about an area of her breast, she should seek medical attention,” says Dr. Frontiera.

When a lump is discovered, other tests are run to determine if it is cancerous. Because many other breast conditions can cause changes to breast tissue a lump does not always mean cancer. Regardless of the cause, any time you discover a change in your breast tissue – be it lumps, dimples, changes in size or discharge – let your doctor know.

If a lump or other breast tissue change is determined to be cancer, the diagnosis is not a death sentence. Chances of surviving breast cancer are very high and survival rates continue to rise.  The survival rate for a woman with Stage 2 breast cancer is 93 percent. A Stage 3 patient’s survival rate is as high as 72 percent. If the cancer is not caught until Stage 4, the survival rate drops to 22 percent.

How is breast cancer treated?

“It depends on the situation,” says Dr. Frontiera. “Common treatments include anti-estrogen hormone therapy, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.”

Treatment plans are developed considering factors like when the cancer is detected, what type of cancer it is and how aggressively it grows.

Because each woman is different, each diagnosis and treatment plan is different. If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor will work with you to develop a treatment plan that works for your specific needs.

African American women are more likely to die from breast cancer. Why?

African American women are 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than white women. Even though African American women get mammograms and are screened for breast cancer as often as white women, their risk of dying from the disease is much greater.

Some of the factors behind this disparity are biological and genetic. While fewer African American women are diagnosed with breast cancer, they are often diagnosed at a younger age and with more aggressive forms of breast cancer.

The starkest differences are in the follow-up care and treatment of breast cancer in the African American population.

When a mammogram shows an abnormality, follow-up tests are often scheduled to see if the abnormality is cancer. According to a Center for Disease Control (CDC) study, more African American women end up waiting for more than 60 days before a follow-up appointment is completed. Waiting longer for follow-up care can allow the cancer to spread beyond the breast, making it harder to treat.

The CDC study also discovered that once cancer is found, there are treatment differences. Fewer African American women receive the surgery, radiation and hormone treatments needed when compared to other racial groups being treated for breast cancer.

Social and economic differences also contribute to the disparity. African Americans often experience more barriers to health care access, like health insurance coverage, than other patients. These barriers can delay the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

What can African American Women do to reduce their risk of developing breast cancer?

Prevention and risk reduction methods are the same for all women, regardless of race: participate in routine exercise like brisk walking several times per week, avoid weight gain and obesity, and minimize alcohol intake.



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