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Everyone knows someone—a family member, friend, colleague, or neighbor—that has battled breast cancer. In 2021 alone, about 281,000 women will receive an invasive breast cancer diagnosis, along with 50,000 women who will be diagnosed with a non-invasive form of the disease.
While men can also get it, the chance of a woman developing breast cancer is much higher. Whether you're approaching your first annual screening or you have a family history, understanding the signs, types, and prevention strategies can help you put your health first. Here's what you need to know this breast cancer awareness month.
Screening mammograms detect early-stage breast cancer before signs or symptoms appear.
A breast cancer screening mammogram uses 2D or 3D imaging technology to detect signs of the disease early when it's more easily treated. Because lumps can't always be felt, most women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer discover it during their annual mammogram. Regular screenings allow breast health experts to spot and track small changes in your breast tissue from year to year, giving you the best opportunity to catch and treat signs of cancer before it worsens. The yearly screening should begin at the age of 40 or 45, if you have no risk factors, like a family history of breast cancer.
Other signs of breast cancer may include:
- Changes in your nipple or the skin around your nipple
- Your nipple pushing inward, or becoming inverted
- A new lump in the breast that may or may not be hard or tender
- Nipple discharge that is bloody or rust-colored
Aside from regular screenings, the most important thing you can do is know your body. Pay attention when something looks or feels different and seek care to get answers, even if it turns out to be nothing.
If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, treatment is based on the stage and type of your breast cancer.
Breast cancer is categorized into five different stages based on cancer cell characteristics, such as size and how far it has spread. Stage 0 is the earliest and describes non-invasive breast cancers, like ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS. Stages 0, I, and II are considered early-stage cancer. Stage IV is considered metastatic cancer and the most advanced, since cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs or bones.
In addition to staging, all invasive cancer diagnoses note the cancer's hormone-receptor status and HER2 protein status, which affects your treatment options. For example, a woman with stage II breast cancer that is both hormone-negative and HER2-negative would require a different approach than a woman with stage II cancer that is hormone-positive.
Is every breast cancer treated with chemotherapy?
You may be surprised to know that not every woman needs chemotherapy. If you have hormone-positive breast cancer, genomic testing can predict whether or not you would benefit from chemotherapy. If it won't help you, your care team will recommend a different course of action, like an endocrine pill. For others, chemotherapy may be the most effective course of action. Ultimately, each treatment plan is individualized based on the stage and type of your breast cancer as well as your preferences and goals.
A clinical trial could offer innovative treatment options not yet widely available.
A clinical trial is a research study that uses either treatments not yet available to the general public or available treatments used in new ways or new combinations. Clinical trials are safe and effective options that can improve how breast cancer is treated. At MedStar Health, we run nearly 25 breast cancer trials at any given time to give our patients access to groundbreaking cancer treatments. Currently, we're participating in a nationwide trial to see if certain DCIS cases can be treated with an anti-hormone pill instead of using surgery as the first line of defense.
Washington, D.C. has the highest mortality rate for breast cancer in the United States.
There are regional differences when it comes to incidences and mortality rates related to breast cancer. In the DC metropolitan area, we have one of the highest incident rates of breast cancer in the United States. What's more concerning is that Washington, D.C. has the highest breast cancer mortality rate in the country. Although Caucasian women are more at risk for developing breast cancer, African American women are more likely to develop triple-negative breast cancer, which is an aggressive type that spreads quickly. If you live in the DMV, it's important to prioritize your annual screening to increase your chances of early detection.
Survival rates for breast cancer are high.
When caught early, the disease is highly treatable. Breast cancer survival rates estimate the percentage of women who can be expected to survive five years or more after diagnosis. For early-stage and localized cases, the five-year survival rate is 99 percent according to the SEER database, which tracks cancer statistics nationwide. For women with stage III cancers, the five-year survival rate drops slightly to 86 percent. The survival rates drop further for metastatic breast cancers, with approximately one-third of women with stage IV diagnoses surviving the five-year mark.
Did you know #BreastCancer survival rates are high, when detected early? In this blog, breast surgeon Dr. Patricia Wehner shares 5 things you should know about the disease: https://bit.ly/3rmaj5x.Click to Tweet
Breast cancer prevention.
If you are a survivor, you know that the journey ahead requires you to stay vigilant in screening for recurrence while doing what you can to modify your risk factors. While you can't necessarily prevent breast cancer, there are a few lifestyle changes you can make to lower your breast cancer risk, including:
- Maintaining a healthy body-mass-index (BMI) through healthy nutrition and exercise
- Limiting alcohol consumption to once or twice a week
- Scheduling an annual mammogram every year
- Being in tune with what's normal—or not—for your body
The Breast Health program at MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center.
If you develop breast cancer, there's a team of specialized cancer experts in your corner. At the Breast Health program at MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center, you'll find a multi-disciplinary approach to treating all types of the disease. After you receive your diagnosis, you'll begin meeting with a team of people that may include breast and reconstructive surgeons, medical and radiology oncologists, and physical or occupational therapists, among others.
A diagnosis may feel overwhelming at first, but you can expect our large, experienced team to deliver the best care available, both in treating the breast cancer cells and in supporting you physically and emotionally as you recover.
If you haven't been diagnosed, be sure to schedule your annual mammogram to give yourself the best chance of catching cancer early. And if you notice any breast changes, don't wait. Be your own health advocate and make sure to mention any concerns to your healthcare provider as soon as you notice them.