The statistics are impossible to ignore. According to the American Cancer Society, one in eight women will be personally affected by breast cancer at some point. This year alone, nearly 250,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed, and more than 40,450 women will die from the disease.
Fortunately, the chances of surviving breast cancer are better now than ever.
"Death rates from breast cancer have been dropping since about 1989, with larger decreases in women younger than 50," says Dr. Robin Motter-Mast, D.O., of Greater Baltimore Medical Center. "These decreases are believed to be the result of finding breast cancer earlier through screening and increased awareness, as well as better treatments."
Some breast cancer risk factors are within a patient's control; others are not.
"A woman's risk of breast cancer approximately doubles if she has a first-degree relative —mother, sister or daughter — who has been diagnosed with breast cancer," Dr. Motter-Mast says. "Less than 15 percent of women who get breast cancer have a family member diagnosed with it."
Following a healthy diet, limiting alcohol intake, choosing to not smoke and breastfeeding are some of the most important steps women can take to maintain not just good breast health, but overall wellness.
Sara Fogarty, D.O., of GBMC's Sandra & Malcolm Berman Comprehensive Breast Care Center, says self-awareness and knowing what's normal for you are keys when it comes to monitoring breast changes.
"Regular clinical breast exams and breast self-exams are no longer recommended; however, all women should be familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel, and report any changes to a healthcare provider," Dr. Fogarty says.
Additionally, keeping up with regularly scheduled mammograms is essential.
"Screening mammogram recommendations are changing all the time, but mammograms are an important part of breast health," Dr. Fogarty says. "When you should start screening and how often you're screened should be a conversation you have with the physician who orders your mammogram."
National averages show that mammograms are about 80 percent effective in detecting breast cancers, but can range from 60 percent to 95 percent accuracy depending on the density of the breast tissue. Doctors may also employ advanced 3-D mammography in conjunction with ultrasound technology to obtain a more detailed look at any questionable areas.
"Ultrasounds are commonly used in patients when they present with a finding such as a lump, or to clarify a new finding on a mammogram," Dr. Fogarty says. "Mammograms are X-rays; ultrasounds are sound waves that easily travel through the breast and can differentiate solid and cystic masses. Mammograms alone in young women are usually not as helpful as ultrasounds because pre-menopausal women typically have dense breast tissue that makes it difficult to see through to identify lumps, asymmetries and masses."
Doctors at GBMC emphasize breast cancer prevention and monitor monthly mammogram rates as part of a larger focus on the health of the local population.
"We're currently at a screening rate of 74 percent, and we work every day to make sure every woman between the ages of 50 and 74 receives a mammogram biennially (every two years)," says Dr. Motter-Mast. "We look at the entire patient population who have had a visit with us in the last 18 months and reach out to these patients to help them set up their mammogram appointments."
GBMC also partners with a local radiology group to make walk-in mammogram appointments available, giving women more opportunities to be screened when it's most convenient for them.
To keep up to date on ever-changing breast cancer treatment options, GBMC doctors consult frequently with other physicians who participate in patient care to share data obtained at meetings or through continuing medical education.
"As a breast surgeon, I tell patients all the time that we are the quarterback of the treatment team, and will direct the patient through therapy," Dr. Fogarty says. "We communicate and connect with all members of the treatment team on a daily basis for each of our patients. We then make sure they are followed in upcoming years, and are part of our survivorship program once they have completed their treatment."
For more information, consult your primary care physician or visit GBMC.org/breastcare.
—Amy Lynch for Greater Baltimore Medical Center