Not Your Mother’s Breast Cancer: What You Need to Know Now

An estimated one in eight women will confront a breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime.

One in eight.

Think of your closest female friends and relatives, and you can probably come up with eight easily. It’s a sobering frame of reference for the fact that breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women, second only to the less-lethal skin cancers.

The good news

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and since its inception 35 years ago, much has been done in service of the early mission to “fill the information void” about this deadly disease. Thanks to increased awareness, women are more knowledgeable about warning signs, treatment options, and the importance of regular exams. That has made the disease less deadly than it was a generation ago—the five year survival rate for women with breast cancer is about 90%.

Treatment has also become more targeted, less toxic, and more effective. For example: in the past, women with DCIS (a precancerous condition) were usually advised to undergo aggressive treatments including surgery and radiation, even though DCIS is unlikely to advance to invasive cancer in 75% of women who have it. Thanks to medical advances, doctors now have technology to help determine which tumors are likely to progress and treat accordingly. Some recently developed medications and treatments result in fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy, because they can specifically target cancerous growth. Also, the overall approach to cancer treatment is more holistic and comprehensive, incorporating nutrition, exercise instruction, and psychological support for the whole family.

No big deal?

Despite these positive developments, breast cancer is still a killer. Imagine an airplane with 115 people aboard falling from the sky every day—that’s how many people die from metastatic breast cancer (where it has spread to the bones or other organs). Up to 30% of early-stage breast cancers return as stage IV or metastatic, so in a sense, there’s no such thing as “minor breast cancer.” Another frightening statistic: breast cancer screenings are down 94% across the country thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What you can do

It’s vital to know your risk. Women are at increased risk for breast cancer simply by being female (men get breast cancer too, but it’s less common). While a family history (particularly in first-degree blood relatives like a mother or a sister) does almost double your risk, most women who get breast cancer do not have a family history of the disease. Age is another factor—most women diagnosed are over the age of 55. However, women under 40 tend to get more aggressive forms of cancer that are both harder to detect and receive less funding and research. Establishing a baseline mammogram (that can be compared with later mammograms) is a good idea. Check with your insurance to learn the earliest age a mammogram is covered.

Early intervention allows for drastically improved outcomes. That’s why it’s vital to perform frequent self-exams and get mammograms regularly. Mammograms have been known to find cancerous cells up to three years before women could feel them.

While there’s no single cause of breast cancer, lifestyle plays a huge role in prevention. Regular well-woman exams, regular exercise, stress management, and a healthy diet including plenty of fresh produce are great ways to lower your chances of any type of cancer. To schedule a well-woman exam at one of our five community health clinics, please call (323) 635-1140.