Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women besides skin cancer. In 2020, it’s estimated that almost 300,000 women and over 2600 men will develop some form of breast cancer. While those numbers seem grim, the good news is early detection yields a very good survival rate. According to Cancer.net, the average five-year and 10-year survival rates for women with invasive breast cancer are 91% and 84%, respectively. Better still, there is a 99% survival rate when breast cancer is detected early.
What are the risk factors?
- Age: Most breast cancers are diagnosed over the age of 50.
- Genetics: Inherited changes to certain genes like BRCA1 & BRCA2 increase risk.
- Hormones: Early menstruation and late menopause mean longer exposure to hormones that raise cancer risk.
- Dense Breasts: These have more connective tissue than fatty tissue which makes it more difficult to see tumors on a mammogram.
- Personal History: If you’ve had breast cancer before, you’re more likely to get it a second time.
- Family History: If you have had a mother, sister or daughter with breast or ovarian cancer, your risk is higher. If your father or brother has had breast cancer, you have an increased risk.
- Radiation Treatments: If you’ve previously had radiation therapy to chest or breasts before the age of 30, the risk increases.
In addition, if you’re overweight and not physically active, you’re at greater risk for breast cancer. If you’ve been prescribed therapeutic hormones, your risk is also increased.
How can you lower your risk for breast cancer?
While you can’t change your age or genetics, you can do some things to reduce your risk for breast cancer. In general, staying healthy throughout your life will reduce your cancer risk and improve your survival rate if you should develop cancer.
- Watch your weight, try to maintain a weight that is healthy for you.
- Get regular exercise.
- Limit alcoholic beverages, which can increase hormone levels or damage DNA.
- Weigh the risks of hormone therapy if prescribed for you, discuss the risks with your doctor.
- Breastfeed your children, if possible, because this lessens the amount of hormones in your system that can promote breast cancer cell growth.
- Talk to your doctor about ways to lower your risk if you have a family history of breast cancer.
Advances in Breast Cancer Research
Breast cancer is one of the few cancers that has an effective screening test, the mammography, which allows early detection. Still, research is working toward finding even better ways of screening, including advanced 3-D imaging to get a better look at breast tissue. This could lead to better diagnosis of tumors that are not large enough to be detected during a typical breast exam.
- Research into the types of breast cancer has led to the discovery of cancer subtypes that respond differently to various types of treatment.
- Hormone receptor (HR) positive. HR-positive breast cancers are those that contain the estrogen receptor (ER) and/or progesterone receptor (PR). These cancers grow in response to these hormones and can be treated with hormone therapies.
- Human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) positive. HER2-positive breast cancers are those that have high amounts of the HER2 protein; they can be HR positive or HR negative. These cancers can be treated with therapies that target HER2.
- Triple-negative breast cancer. Such cancers do not contain ER, PR, or HER2 so they do not respond to hormone therapies. Chemotherapy is the main treatment option in addition to surgery to remove any tumors.
As more information is discovered about the types of breast cancer, better treatments can be found. For example, one study found a test that can predict which women can safely avoid chemotherapy when patients have ER-positive breast cancer that hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes. And further studies into the different molecular types of breast cancer could lead to the development of treatments that target the genetic alterations that cause certain cancer types.
Early detection is key
Every October there is a push to create more awareness of breast cancer because of the danger it presents to women (and men). With awareness comes education and the understanding that early detection is the key to survival. Regular self-exams, annual screenings with your healthcare provider and mammograms are the best way to catch breast cancer at its earliest stage. When caught early, there is minimal need for medical or surgical treatments, and your long-term survival rates are much better.