Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States. But the survival rates of breast cancer have never been better: overall the survival rate for a woman newly diagnosed with breast approaches 90 percent. Between 2000 and 2010 the death rate from breast cancer dropped almost 2 percent per year.
This is good news for a woman who is newly diagnosed, who has every reason to be optimistic about her outlook. How was this progress made? Through improved early detection, and the development of better, more effective options for treatment. While these statistics are good news, there are still far too many women who die from breast cancer. It is critically important that we continue to work toward further improving cure rates, and not backslide with the substantial amount of progress that has already been made.
For example, mammograms detect cancers at their earliest and smallest, and are associated with reducing the risk of dying from breast cancer in all age groups from 40 to 70. While improved survival is the most important measurable endpoint, earlier detection has other potential benefits as well including lowering the likelihood of needing more aggressive treatment, and enabling us to perform less extensive surgery while achieving the same excellent results. It is important that, despite a large amount of conflicting advice, guidelines, and information out there, women understand that yearly mammograms are recommended starting at age 40 for the general population, and perhaps even earlier for women with a family history of breast cancer developed at a young age.
For a woman newly diagnosed with breast cancer, the treatment options are also better than ever before, but it can often be difficult for a woman to hear that message of optimism against all the background noise that is out there. Everyone recommends getting information, but the problem is not lack of information, it’s actually too much information, often with no filter. When a woman goes on the internet or seeks advice from friends, she is inundated with emails, websites, and chat rooms all providing advice and information. However, the only piece of advice that she needs upon starting this information-seeking journey is to remember this: there is no one size fits all, and what was true or relevant for someone else’s case, may have nothing to do with her case. So there is a limit to what one can learn from a website, a chatroom, or even a friend who seems to have had “the exact same thing.”
In the end, a woman needs to seek advice from breast specialists (radiologists, surgeons, medical and radiation oncologists who all specialize in breast cancer) in the best cancer center she can access, and listen to her own voice, above all, to make sound decisions. Through this path, she can find comfort in the fact that she has maximized her chances of getting the best possible outcome for her care and for her future.
Elisa Port, MD, is chief of breast surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center and director of the Dubin Breast Center, a state-of-the-art breast center in Manhattan that opened in April 2011. She sees and consults with approximately two thousand patients and performs between four hundred to five hundred surgeries a year. Find out more about her book The New Generation Breast Cancer Book.