Disclosure :: this post is sponsored by Touro Infirmary
Just a few decades ago, breast cancer was discussed in hushed tones, and research on the disease was still in its infancy. Today, people proudly wear their pink ribbons, and every week seems to bring another media report about a new breast cancer study. But there’s one downside to such rapid progress: It’s hard to keep up with all the changes.
To make it easier, here’s a quick rundown of major new advances in detection and treatment. Even better, you’ll find the latest thinking on how to reduce your risk of getting breast cancer in the first place.
Detection: A Clearer Picture
In 2016, an estimated 246,660 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 61,000 cases of non-invasive breast cancer.
Mammography is an important tool for detecting breast cancer early on, when it’s easiest to treat. But the benefits and limitations of mammography vary based on factors like age and personal risk. Experts have different recommendations for mammography. Currently, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening every two years for women ages 50 to 74. The American Cancer Society recommends yearly screening for all women ages 40 and older. Women should talk with their doctors about their personal risk factors before making a decision about when to start getting mammograms or how often they should get them.
Mammography, which uses X-rays to produce an image, can detect breast cancers in women without symptoms. But like other medical tests, it is imperfect, so scientists are always looking for new-and-improved detection methods to supplement this tried-and-true one. Some imaging tests are already used in specific situations. MRI scans, which use magnets and radio waves to create detailed images, can help screen certain high-risk women. Breast ultrasound, which uses high-frequency sound waves to peer inside the body, can help evaluate breast problems found on a mammogram.
Several newer imaging methods are still considered experimental. In scintimammography, a slightly radioactive substance is injected into a vein. Once in the bloodstream, it attaches to breast cancer cells, where it can be detected by a camera. In tomosynthesis, a machine takes a series of X-rays as it rotates around the breast, producing a 3D picture of tissue there.
Treatment: Closer to a Cure
A woman who got breast cancer back in 1975 didn’t have a lot of options other than a mastectomy. Today, women have a host of treatment choices:
- Surgery involves removing either the whole breast (mastectomy) or just the affected area. Following an extensive operation, some women choose to restore the breast’s appearance with reconstructive surgery. Recent advances in reconstructive techniques make it easier to match the procedure to a woman’s preferences and needs.
- Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to destroy cancer cells. The standard approach requires getting daily radiation treatments for several weeks. But some studies show that more convenient treatment schedules, which give larger doses of radiation over fewer days, may be just as effective.
- Chemotherapy involves receiving cancer-killing drugs either intravenously or by mouth. One promising drug for advanced breast cancer is ixabepilone. It can cause a significant percentage of breast tumors to shrink or stop growing, even in women who have already tried several types of chemo.
- Hormone therapy targets the two-thirds of breast cancers that contain receptors for estrogen or progesterone. Since estrogen promotes the growth of these cancers, hormone therapy blocks the effect of estrogen or lowers estrogen levels. Aromatase inhibitors, one group of hormone therapy drugs, are used to help prevent recurrences in women who have had breast cancer. Researchers are now studying whether aromatase inhibitors can help prevent breast cancer in healthy postmenopausal women.
- Targeted biologic therapy takes aim at the genetic changes in cells that underlie cancer. Two current drugs target HER2, a growth-promoting protein found in some breast cancer cells. Another drug targets angiogenesis, the development of the new blood vessels that are necessary for tumors to grow. A third group of drugs, currently under study, targets the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), another protein found in high amounts in certain cancer cells. Some anti-EGFR drugs are already used to treat other types of cancer.
Prevention: What You Can Do Now
As welcome as these advances are, progress in prevention is even better. Recent studies have shed light on ways to reduce your risk.
- Stay physically active. A growing body of research shows that regular physical activity helps ward off breast cancer. In a large study from Germany, the preventive effects were especially strong for women who exercised regularly after menopause. To reduce breast cancer risk, the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends getting 45 to 60 minutes of exercise on five or more days a week.
- Drop the extra pounds. Being overweight or obese increases your risk for breast cancer, particularly after menopause. Plus, when overweight or obese women get breast cancer, research shows that the disease tends to be more aggressive and the chance of recurrence is higher, compared to normal-weight women.
- Reconsider that drink. There is a clear link between heavy alcohol use and breast cancer risk. But is there a safe level of alcohol consumption? A study of more than 1.2 million British women reported a small increase in the risk for breast cancer even among light to moderate drinkers. If you choose to drink alcohol, the ACS recommends keeping it moderate; for women, that’s no more than one drink per day.
Learn more about breast cancer prevention, screening, early detection, treatment and support every day of October by visiting www.31DaysofPink.com.
About Dr. Elly Zakris
Dr. Elly Zakris is the Director of Radiation Oncology at Touro Infirmary. She earned her B.A. in Microbiology from Rutgers University in 1983 and her M.D. from Duke University in 1987. She served her internship in Internal Medicine at the Hospital of San Rafaels – Affiliate of Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, CT in 1988 and her residency in radiation therapy at the Joint Center for Radiation Therapy at Harvard School of Medicine from 1988-1992. Dr. Zakris is Board Certified by American Board of Radiation Oncology. She has extensive experience in comprehensive cancer treatment with special interest in breast, gynecological, pediatric, prostate, lung and central nervous system (CNS) malignancies.