Breast Cancer Fears and Facts

Armen Hareyan's picture

According to the American Cancer Society, in 1999, 175,000 women developed invasive breast cancer and another 40,000 developed non-invasive breast cancer. During that year, 43,000 women died from the disease.

Clearly, this is a serious disease. So much so, that many women fear developing breast cancer is an immediate death sentence. However, according to Dr. Caroline Block, an oncologist at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, "For women with early stage breast cancer (cancers under 2 inches, with or without involved lymph nodes), the cure rates are very high. Most women will survive without recurrence of their cancer. Even for early stage cancers, we usually recommend preventative therapies to make the cure rate as high as possible. There are excellent support groups and networks for women with breast cancer. Meeting other survivors can be one of the best ways to overcome this and other fears." Block further explains that in the past 15 years, the mortality rates from breast cancer have declined almost 2% per year. "This is, in large part, due to cancers being diagnosed at earlier stages," states Dr. Block.

The American Cancer Society reports the following survival rates for women with breast cancer:

  • 85% survive 5 years from diagnosis
  • 71% survive 10 years from diagnosis
  • 57% survive 15 years from diagnosis
  • 52% survive 20 years from diagnosis

Breast Cancer Treatment

Prognosis and method of treatment depend on several factors. As Dr. Block indicates, the earlier the stage of breast cancer is relevant to prognosis. Other considerations include whether the cancer is located in one breast, both breasts, or has it spread to other parts of the body? Other factors determining prognosis and treatment, include:

  • The type of breast cancer
  • Characteristics of the cancer cells
  • Age and weight
  • Whether or not a woman is still menstruating
  • General health condition

When a woman is diagnosed as having breast cancer, more tests are conducted to discover if the cancer remains localized, has spread to the other breast, or other parts of the body. Stages range from 0 to 4, progressing from early, localized presence, to cancer that has spread to other organs such as the lungs, bones, liver or brain.

There are four types of breast cancer treatment. These include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy.

Dr. Block describes the typical intervention.

"For most women with early breast cancer, breast conservation therapy is the preferred treatment. This consists of removal of the cancerous mass (called a lumpectomy in which part of the breast is removed) followed by radiation. This can be as effective as removing the entire breast (a mastectomy). Most women, given an equal choice, will choose breast conservation."


"There are, however, situations where a mastectomy is the preferred treatment," explains Dr. Block. "These are instances in which multiple cancers in different parts of the breast are present; when the breast cancers are large (over 2 inches); or, when the cancerous tumor is such that a lumpectomy is unable to completely remove the cancer. At the time of surgery, lymph nodes under the arm are often sampled. Currently, this is usually done as a limited procedure called a sentinel node biopsy where only the 2 or 3 main lymph nodes draining the cancer are removed."

Dr. Block explains that, "Surgery and radiation help protect the breast or chest area. Preventative systemic therapy with chemotherapy and/or hormonal therapy are often also given to minimize the risk of the breast cancer spreading to other parts of the body."

"Chemotherapy is typically given for 3 to 6 months," states Dr. Block, "depending on the characteristics of the cancer. The hormonal therapy used is a pill called Tamoxifen which blocks estrogen from entering breast cancer cells. This is taken daily for 5 years and is used for breast cancers that have on their surface a protein called an estrogen receptor. Testing for estrogen receptors is routinely done on the breast cancer after it is removed."

Breast cancer treatment is often customized for each patient due to the numerous variables of location and type of cancer, as well as each individual patient's health profile. These choices are made in concert with one's physician who can supply various options, and the risks and benefits of particular action plans.

For an appointment with a Newton-Wellesley Hospital affiliated oncologist, call CareFinder at 1-866-NWH-DOCS (866-694-3627).


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