Breast Cancer: 1 in 8, but good news, too

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Next to skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women. About one in eight women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, with three out of four developing it after age 50.

But the good news is that death rates from this disease have been declining due to better treatment, and today there are nearly three million breast cancer survivors in the U.S.

“One in eight does not mean death from breast cancer,” says Nadine Tung, M.D. of The Cancer Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “Breast cancer is one of those cancers that our expectation for the vast majority is cure.”

Her BIDMC colleague Gerburg Wulf, M.D., Ph.D., adds perspective: “Early stage breast cancer is frequently much more curable than hypertension or diabetes. It’s a condition that can be diagnosed, be dealt with, and the woman can move on and live a healthy life in the majority of cases.”

Dr. Tung, Director of the Cancer Genetics and Prevention Program, and Dr. Wulf, a medical oncologist and researcher, are the guests on the September edition of Physician Focus with the Massachusetts Medical Society, discussing a range of subjects about breast cancer. Hosting this program is Dale Magee, M.D., an obstetrician/gynecologist and a past president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

Among the topics of conversation are the risk factors for the disease, screenings and treatments, mammography and how it compares to the MRI in detection, and preventive steps that women can take to reduce their risk. The physicians also discuss who should consider genetic testing and preventive mastectomies.

One message that consistently comes through in the discussion is that much progress has occurred in recent years in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer – and that has led to better outcomes.

“We used to rely on just how it looked under the microscope,” says Dr. Tung. “Now physicians can take a piece of the tumor and analyze its structure, and that directs how physicians can treat the patient with personalized medicine. Special treatments and personalized medicine have improved the treatments and cure rates for breast cancer,” she says.

Adds Dr. Wulf: “It is an obstacle than can be overcome. The prognosis is overwhelmingly good for the vast majority of women who are getting diagnosed with early stage breast cancer.”

Please join us in September for Breast Cancer: Risks, Screening, and Prevention to learn about the current thinking on mammography and the treatment of breast cancer.

Photo, from left: B. Dale Magee, M.D.; Gerburg Wulf, M.D., Ph.D.; Nadine Tung, M.D.