The American Cancer Society has just released some new figures on breast cancer death rates and the news is very promising.
The report finds that death rates from breast cancer in the United States dropped 39 percent between 1989 and 2015. According to the report, that translates to 322,600 deaths that have been avoided during that 26-year period and the overall declines have been attributed to both improvements in treatment and early detection by mammograms.
Cary Ralph, RN, CN-BN, Certified Breast Health Navigator with Williamson Medical Group’s Breast Health Center in Franklin, said that one woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every three minutes. A staggering 71 percent of breast cancer related deaths occurred in women who don’t undergo regular screening mammography.
“We can’t prevent breast cancer, but what we can do is catch it early,” Ralph said. “We have wonderful treatment options today that are much more tolerable. We are learning more and more about cancer every day. Figuring out specific mutations and cancer biology helps to steer development of new targeted therapies.”
Many targeted therapies have less side effects compared to chemotherapy. Ralph added although chemotherapy still plays an important role in the cure of breast cancer, the more targeted and immunotherapies (drugs that help our immune system fight cancers) developed the better we become at killing cancer and sparing healthy cells.
“Women can still work while on targeted therapy,” Ralph said. “Is it easy? No. Is it doable? Yes.”
Catch It Early
The biggest risk factors for breast cancer, according to Ralph, are being female and getting older, which means that every woman is at risk. She said 76 percent of women who have breast cancer had none of the other risk factors such as family history.
“Go get your mammogram,’” Ralph said. “There has been some confusion about the recommendations for screening mammograms out there. But you need to start getting them at age 40 and go annually as long as you are in good health. If you have a family history possibly earlier than 40. If we can catch it early, it’s around 95 percent curable.”
Stacie Holloway, FNP, CN-BP, is also a Certified Breast Health Navigator with Williamson Medical Group. She said the release of new breast cancer screening recommendations by the US Task Force in 2015 stimulated conversation in the medical community.
“This caused a lot of confusion,” Holloway said. “Are we screening too early? Are we over-screening and continuing screenings too late? We get those questions a lot, but there are valid reasons why we make the recommendations we do.”
She added that your personal family history is extremely important to discuss with a physician because screening guidelines can vary from woman to woman based on family history.
“When I am asked about how often a woman should get a mammogram, I ask the patient to tell me about herself and her family history and then I can tell her my recommendations for her breast screenings.”
Ralph added that although mammography will not detect all cancers, it is the best tool available to protect women and find cancers early.
One key advancement in mammogram technology that is contributing to finding breast cancers earlier, when they are highly treatable, is the use of 3-D mammography, or Tomosynthesis.
“We use this technology especially in women with dense breast tissue, which can make it harder to see small cancers with traditional mammography,” Ralph said. “It also reduces call-backs and false positives, which can be so stressful for women.”
Holloway said 3-D technology is fairly new to the scene in breast detection, it allows a radiologist to see millimeter slices inside the breast, which gives very valuable information about dense breast tissue.
She said many insurances will cover 3-D mammography, including Medicare, but some do not. The cost of adding a 3-D image is minimal and many women feel the additional cost is well worth the valuable information to ensure accuracy of screening.
“If you have been told you do have dense breast tissue, you don’t have to have a physician order to have 3-D mammography,” Holloway said. “All you have to do is ask.”
But Ralph also advises that women continue annual clinic exams and to do a monthly self-breast exam to learn what your ‘normal’ feels like so you can detect something that seems abnormal to you.
“A few days after your period has ended is a perfect time to do a self-breast exam, because the hormonal lumps and bumps will decrease,” she said. “If you are in menopause just choosing a date that is easy to remember like the first day of the month makes it simple. What your normal feels like is so important because as good as mammography is, it can’t always pick up things you feel with your fingers. The best protection is an informed woman who is familiar with her own breasts.”
Ralph said if you feel anything that’s new, changed or has reddened, call your doctor and let them do a breast exam on you.
“Breast cancer is our common enemy as women, but late detection is also our enemy,” she said. “Being a champion to educate ourselves regarding breast health is key to all of us winning the battle.”
Cary Ralph, RN, CN-BN and Stacie Holloway, FNP, CN-BP, are both Certified Breast Health Navigators with Williamson Medical Group’s Breast Health Center. The Breast Health Center can be reached by calling 615-595-4570, or to schedule a mammogram, call 615-435-5022.
Featured photo by David Braud, for Williamson Medical Center.Share this Article