An estimated one in eight American women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society, and if you’re a mom reading this, you already have the two biggest risk factors for developing the disease — 1) being a woman and 2) getting older.
But, the science is on our side. Every day, new discoveries are being made when it comes to preventing, detecting, treating and recovering from breast cancer. Here are some the latest advancements.
No Chemo Needed
The dreaded chemotherapy may not be necessary for the majority of women with the most common type of breast cancer, according to a groundbreaking new clinical trial.
The TAILORx trial began in 2006 and enrolled more than 10,000 women around the world, including several right here in Ohio, who had early-stage estrogen receptor positive breast cancer that did not involve the lymph nodes.
Researchers used a 21-gene expression test to categorize women as low risk, intermediate risk and high risk for their cancer returning. Previous studies had shown that women in the high-risk category did best with both chemotherapy and hormone therapy, while women with low risk only needed hormone therapy. But there wasn’t much known about the women who fell in the middle. As part of the trial, women with intermediate risk were randomly assigned to hormone therapy alone or hormone therapy with chemo.
The results were stunning: the women in the intermediate risk group — about 70 percent of women who develop this type of cancer — showed no added benefit from the chemo.
“This is such a relief for so many patients,” says Dr. Kathleen Raque, a surgeon with the TriHealth Cancer Institute. “Breast cancer therapy is not easy; it’s intense. But to be able to eliminate four or five months of chemotherapy and still have a good outcome, that’s exactly what we want.”
New Screenings Aid Women with Dense Breasts
New advancements in breast imaging are helping doctors get a clearer look inside dense breasts.
According to the National Cancer Institute, nearly half of all women age 40 and older who get mammograms are found to have dense breasts — that is, they have more fibrous tissue than fatty tissue. Breast density is not something that can be felt during a clinical breast exam or a self exam, so most women won’t know if they have dense breasts until their first mammogram.
The issue with dense breast tissue is that it appears white on a mammogram, making it difficult to spot tumors, which also appear white. In addition, research has found that a woman’s overall risk of breast cancer is higher the more dense her breasts.
Increasingly, additional imaging tools are being used in along with mammograms to get a different view inside dense breasts. New breast-specific ultrasounds include the Automated Breast Ultrasound (ABUS) and the Automated Whole Breast Ultrasound (AWBUS). 3D mammograms and MRIs can also provide a better look. Women should ask their doctors about additional screening options.
Testing Genetics at Home
You can now test to see if you have a genetic disposition to developing certain types of breast cancer right from your home — but should you?
This spring, 23andMe, the popular at-home genetics testing company, received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to offer tests for three genetic variants found on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which are linked to a higher risk of breast, ovarian and prostate cancer.
While only five to 10 percent of breast cancers can be linked to gene mutations, 23andMe points out that the testing can be especially helpful for those who don’t know their family’s heritage or health history — for example, BRCA variants are most prevalent in those of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.
Still, doctors encourage women to seek guidance from someone trained in interpreting the results of genetic tests.
“These types of tests do make the information more available for more people, but we should proceed with caution,” Dr. Raque with TriHealth says. “We work with genetic counselors to take time to go through family history with patients and decide what panels are most appropriate. What we don’t want is for someone to get a false sense of security if they don’t accurately interpret the results.”
More than anything, it’s crucial that women understand their risk of developing breast cancer. You can start the process online — try the quick, personalized assessment at AssessYourRisk.org — and make sure to follow up with your doctor as you age.
Current Screening Recommendations from the American Cancer Society:
Women with average risk:
- 40 to 44 years old: Should have the choice to start annual mammograms if you wish
- 45 to 54 years old: Should get mammograms every year
- 55 years and older: Can switch to mammograms every two years or continue with yearly screening
Women with higher than average risk:
- Should get an MRI and a mammogram every year