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Breast cancer: women fighting back

City of Hope provides advice and answers

Merdies Hayes | 10/4/2013, midnight

Breast Cancer Awareness Month got underway nationwide this week as tens of thousands of women of all ages, all colors and stations in life learned what important, sometimes life-saving, measures they need to take for themselves and loved ones in order to defeat a scourge that will reportedly claim 40,000 lives this year.

The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be about 227,000 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed nationally each year; and the disease continues to be a leading cause of cancer-death for women. But there are improved measures of detection available today, and facilities such as the City of Hope in Lancaster and the Antelope Valley Cancer Center are urging locals to get screened for breast cancer and learn about the positive, actionable steps to help fight the disease.

The discovery of a lump on your breast, or the physician’s dreaded words “we found a problem,” is often an unexpected shock for the woman diagnosed with a cancerous tumor. Often, the stressful wait for test results and the resulting brush with mortality may upturn the ordinary life and even leave psychological scars.

That’s why early screening is vital. It often saves lives. But when should you have a mammogram? The American Cancer Society maintains its recommendation that yearly mammograms should begin at age 40, but the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has recommended that women receive mammograms yearly from ages 50 to 74, and after that every two years. This latter recommendation was based on data showing that yearly mammograms could do more harm than good, leading to many false-positive findings that may result in additional expense, unnecessary anxiety and needless follow-up procedures.

Dr. Jane Mortimer, director of the women’s cancers program at City of Hope, said last month that recent, varied studies of breast cancer in women do not support so-called “across-the-board” screening for every woman beginning at age 40. Her colleagues found that earlier, regular mammograms may not be suitable for every woman, noting that it is not a “one-size-fits-all” decision.

Early screening is recommended for women with a family history of cancer, those who have already had a bout with cancer (i.e. lukeumia) or people who suffer from diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Hodkins, Sickle Cell etc.)

“Some organizations have left the screening at age 40 [in place] because it is such a contentious issue. It’s more about emotion than data,” Mortimer said. “Risk assessment is really very critical. We harp on individualized healthcare, and that means understanding each woman’s risk.” Mortimer further explained that, women at low risk of breast cancer, should not be exposed unnecessarily to radiation in mammograms. Women at high risk, though, should definitely have a mammogram and may need an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), she said.

Who is more at risk?

Those more at risk for developing or dying from cancer include poor Black women; poor women; those with a history of cancer in the family; women who smoke or drink heavily.

Studies have found that younger women who develop breast cancer tend to have a more aggressive form of the disease—one of the arguments against early routine mammograms. Mortimer said such cancers progress much faster—sometimes in less than a year.