Women's Health: Taking Care
What our mothers couldn’t tell us . . . and our daughters need to know.
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The numbers are frightening: The chance of a woman having invasive breast cancer during her lifetime is 12 percent, or a little less than 1 in 8, according to the American Cancer Society. A woman’s chance of dying from the disease is 1 in 35.
Some experts predict that the incidence of breast cancer will increase in the coming years—but that thanks to early detection and better treatment, deaths attributed to the disease will continue to decline.
Thirty years ago, when a woman was diagnosed with breast cancer she usually had a mastectomy, often with no questions asked. Not anymore. “There have been many advances in the last 20 years,” says Beth Brady, M.D., a breast cancer specialist with the Partnership for Breast Care at Hartford Hospital. The discovery of the breast cancer gene (BRCA) is among the breakthroughs that changed the landscape for breast cancer patients, says Brady. Although only 10 percent of women with breast cancer have the gene, testing for it has provided those women with a much better risk assessment. “Then there’s the issue of lymph nodes,” says Brady. “We can test them now and we’ve learned that it isn’t always necessary to remove them all to prevent cancer from spreading. And there’s digital mammography … imaging is so much better now.”
But perhaps the most revolutionary advancement in the treatment of breast cancer is “our ability to evaluate the unique molecular makeup of cells,” says Brady. “By breaking them down and looking at them at the molecular level, we now know that if there are 10 women with cancer, there are 10 different ways to treat them. We can now speed up the rate of testing and expedite treatment that is customized, depending on genetics and the biological behaviors we’ve observed.”
Still, says Brady, it’s critical that women take a proactive role in breast cancer prevention and treatment by partnering with health care providers to assess risks, and by doing regular self-examinations. “Regardless of what we’ve heard, our recommendation is for an annual mammogram after age 40—and a follow-up ultrasound if your breasts are especially dense, because that may obscure findings,” says Brady. “This has not changed.”