Breast cancer awareness is more than mammograms

Dr. Tristi Muir

Dr. Tristi Muir

Our Bodies, Our Lives

Breast cancer awareness means more than mammograms

This month my scrub cap for surgery is decorated with pink ribbons. Football players are wearing hot-pink cleats. During October, a variety of products and events encourage us to commit financially to finding a cure for breast cancer.

One in 8 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in our lifetimes. While men can develop breast cancer, it is 100 times more common in women. The American Cancer Society estimates that in the year 2013, there will be 232,340 new diagnoses of invasive breast cancer.

Each of these “cases” is a daughter, mother, sister or friend.

One year ago in the hot-pink month of October, Patti — a wife, mother, daughter and a good friend of mine — died before her 50th birthday from breast cancer.

The hot pink reminds me I am nearly two months late for my own mammogram.

When and how often we should perform annual mammograms has been a subject of debate for some time. There still is no consensus.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends annual mammograms beginning at age 40. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends them every two years beginning at age 50.

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed a decrease in breast cancer mortality over the past 30 years. But the decrease seems related to better treatment of cancer, rather than early detection from increased screening.

There are some risks associated with frequent mammograms. These include false-positive findings, which can lead to unnecessary breast biopsies and intense anxiety.

But many women diagnosed with early, non-invasive carcinomas do not want to leave it in place and “wait and see” if it will invade. To many of us, this seems like the definition of a ticking time bomb.

Mammograms are an important part of our surveillance, but prevention and treatment are our most powerful weapons.

There are a number of risk factors that increase our chances of being one of the nearly quarter million women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Some of these factors are inherited.

Five to 10 percent of breast cancer is related to genetic predisposition. If you have family members who have had breast or ovarian cancer, discuss this with your primary care physician. You may be a candidate for BRCA testing. If you are found to carry one of these genes, a number of preventive options are available that may save your life.

Obesity, alcohol intake, night-shift work, smoking and the use of combined estrogen and progesterone hormone therapy all can increase a woman’s breast cancer risk.

Walking at a brisk pace for just two and a half hours a week can decrease your risk of breast cancer by 18 percent.

The future of breast cancer research is amazingly bright. With the sequencing of the human genome complete, future medicine will likely rely upon sequencing an individual’s cancer cells and using designer drugs to target the cancer cells.

Vaccines for cancer are being investigated — the HPV vaccine is a great example of an effective vaccination for prevention of cervical cancer.

Prevention, detection and treatment can work together to save our lives and the lives of our mothers, our sisters, our daughters and our friends.

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