Good, bad news in breast

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 16, 2004

cancer battle

By Angie Long

October is National Breast Cancer Month in the U.S.

In the 20 years since its inception, the campaign has boosted the use of mammograms, pushed for better treatments and saved lives. The American Cancer Society (ACS) currently funds 179 breast cancer-related research projects totaling more than $98.7 million.

And there is good news on the battlefront: the number of deaths from breast cancer is dropping. Improvement in survival is attributed to progress in early detection and better treatment for the disease.

A widening gap

But there is some bad news, also: an ever-widening gap between the survival rates of white women and African-American women. Since 1980, the mortality rates for the two groups gradually split apart.

Today, 90 percent of breast cancer is now diagnosed at the local or regional stage, when the five-year survival rates are 97 percent for white women and only 79 percent for African-American women.

Experts say the reason for the disparity is not fully understood, but does seem to reflect socio-economic factors. More affluent women have greater access to high-quality early detection, particularly mammography and appropriate treatments. Cancers are diagnosed earlier and treated more aggressively.

Breast cancer is the most highly diagnosed cancer among women in the U.S.

It is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the nation. Other racial and ethnic groups have a lower incidence of cancer rates than whites and African-Americans.

It is not known what actually causes breast cancer, but certain changes in the DNA can cause normal breast cells to become cancerous. Genetic testing can identify some women who have inherited tumor-suppressed genes.

Steps can be taken by these women to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. By carefully monitoring changes in their breasts, cancers can be found at an earlier, more treatable stage.

No family history

Many newly diagnosed patients say, &uot;But no one is my family has had breast cancer.&uot;

While breast cancer can be hereditary, only 20-30

percent of those who develop breast cancer have any family history of the disease. Most breast cancers have gene mutations that are acquired, not inherited.

What are risk factors?

There are some risk factors that cannot be changed. Simply being a woman increases the risk of developing breast cancer a hundred fold. Risk factors increase as we age. 18 percent of breast cancers are diagnosed among women under 40 while 77 percent are diagnosed in those over 50.

Having a family history with two or more relatives (aunts, grandmothers, sisters, mother) diagnosed with breast/ovarian cancer increases the risk of developing breast cancer.

Having a personal history of breast cancer also puts a woman at a greater risk. A woman who has had cancer in one breast has a three to four-fold increased risk of developing a new cancer in the other breast or another part of the same breast.

Other risk factors include radiation therapy at an earlier age to treat another cancer; early onset of menstrual period or late onset of menopause; long-term use of oral contraceptives; long-term use of hormone replacement therapy; use of alcohol, and obesity and high-fat diets.

Risks that are rumors

Due to the popularity of e-mail, many rumors have traveled across the country dealing with supposed causes of cancer. The following have NOT been proven to have any connection to breast cancer: antiperspirants and shaving under your arms; underwire bras; induced abortions; breast implants; night work and antibiotics.

Reducing the risk

To reduce the risk of developing breast cancer, women should maintain a healthy weight and reduce the amount of fat in their diets, get regular exercise and restrict alcohol consumption.

Monthly breast self-exams are highly recommended along with yearly mammograms for women over 35. To learn more about breast cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment, go to