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Early detection is key to cancer survival
Health advice
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October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And since one in eight women in the United States will get breast cancer this year, this month is a great time to highlight and promote the importance of regular mammograms and other methods for early detection of breast cancer. After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common kind of cancer in women.
Mammograms can find breast cancer early when treatment would be most successful. If you are a woman between the ages of 50-74, you need a mammogram every two years. If you are younger than 50 or older than 74, talk with your doctor about whether you need a mammogram. Mammography is a very accurate screening tool for women of average and increased risk. Like all screening tests, it is not perfect, but it can detect 80-90 percent of breast cancers in women who don’t have symptoms.
Like most other cancers, breast cancer is an uncontrolled growth of cells that have the potential to break through normal breast tissue barriers and spread to other parts of the body. While cancer is always caused by a genetic abnormality, only 5-10 percent of cancers are inherited from your mother or father. Instead, 90 percent of breast cancers are due to genetic abnormalities that happen as a result of the aging process and life in general. This can include risk factors that occur from lifestyle choices.
Breast cancer takes years to develop. Most cancers of the breast cause no symptoms in the beginning. When detected in the localized stage before it spreads to lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer is 98 percent. If the cancer has spread regionally to underarm lymph nodes, the rate drops to 81 percent. And if the abnormal growth has spread to other organs — such as the lungs, bone marrow, liver or brain — the five-year survival rate is 26 percent.
In addition to yearly physician clinical and monthly self-examinations, mammograms are used in women who are a-symptomatic. The goal of screening mammography is to detect cancer when it is still too small to be felt by the woman or her physician. Early detection of small breast cancers by screening mammography greatly improves chances for successful treatment.
American Cancer Society guidelines include yearly screening mammography for all women age 40 and older. The society’s decision was based on the following evidence:
• 1 in 66 women in their 40s will develop breast cancer.
• About 18 percent of all breast cancers occur in women in their forties and eight out of every 10 incidences of breast cancer are found in women older than 50.
Possible signs of breast cancer may include:
• an immobile lump in the breast or under the arm
• tenderness, discomfort or a “pulling sensation”
• skin is dimpled or puckered
• discharge from the nipple
• change in the shape or size of the breast or swelling of the skin
• breast tissue may feel thicker, even though there is no lump; pain or redness of the skin
• sore or retracted nipple
• sores on the nipples or breast that do not clear up after two weeks of treatment. It is also important to tell a doctor about scaly skin on the nipple and changes in breast veins.
Now for the good news: Breast cancer has a high cure rate, with 98 percent of women surviving for five years if cancer is diagnosed early.
A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of getting a disease. With breast cancer, there are many risk factors that can be changed, such as:
• Postmenopausal obesity: Being overweight is linked to a higher incidence of breast cancer.
• Alcohol consumption: Women who consume two to five alcoholic drinks a day have a 50 percent higher rate of breast cancer than those who consume one drink or less a day.
• Lack of physical activity: New data from the Woman’s Health Initiative suggest that postmenopausal women who exercise and keep their weight down substantially reduce their risk of breast cancer.
• Diet is also very important. All adults should eat a high-fiber diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products for calcium, no fried foods and more protein from plants and less from animals.
One last question: Do you know who the Susie Q’s are? Watch for the answer to this question and for activities coordinated by the group. You’ll want to be part of everything they do!

Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.
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