Breast Cancer

New mammography guidelines call for starting later and screening less often

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

The age at which women should start having screening mammograms, and how often, has been controversial for some time. Reputable national organizations have differed in their recommendations. Accumulating data suggest that for women under 45, screening mammograms may bring more harm than good. As a result, the American Cancer Society has radically shifted its screening guidelines for women in their early 40s at an average risk for breast cancer.

Untangling the non-invasive breast cancer controversy

Sara Fazio, MD, FACP
Sara Fazio, MD, FACP, Contributing Editor

Last month, JAMA Oncology published a study that suggests standard treatment for non-invasive breast cancer (DCIS) may be too aggressive and that perhaps some women with DCIS would do just as well without lumpectomy or mastectomy. As expected, this has generated a lot of controversy and confusion. For some women, DCIS is a “precursor” to invasive breast cancer, but in many others, it may not progress. But right now, doctors don’t understand these cancers well, and it is difficult to predict how these abnormal cells will behave in any given woman. More research is needed to determine optimal treatment for each individual woman diagnosed with DCIS. In the meantime, a woman with DCIS and her doctor should take into account certain risk factors (age and race among them), as well as that woman’s personal preferences when creating a treatment plan.

Mediterranean diet may prevent breast cancer, but there are other reasons to pour on the olive oil

Daniel Pendick
Daniel Pendick, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

The PREDIMED study showed that the Mediterranean diet can statistically lower a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks, strokes, and death from heart-related causes. The data also suggest that a Mediterranean diet is associated with a reduced chance of getting breast cancer. This small analysis has some limitations, but provides another reason to consider this already healthful way of eating.

Draft recommendations on screening mammography continue to stir debate

Gregory Curfman, MD
Gregory Curfman, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

The release of new guidelines on mammography never fails to renew the heated controversy over the potential benefits and harms of this procedure. The latest draft guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) are no exception. The USPSTF recommends that women begin having mammograms at age 50 and stop at age 75. (The American Cancer Society and other medical organizations recommend that women begin getting regular mammograms at age 40.) The draft recommendations say there isn’t enough evidence to recommend or discourage the use of a new technique called 3-D mammography for screening, and also say there isn’t enough evidence to recommend that women with dense breasts, who are at higher risk of breast cancer, should have an ultrasound or MRI in addition to screening mammography. Comments can be made on the USPSTF draft until 8:00 pm Easter Time today. A final version of the recommendations is expected to be released in the fall of 2015.

Radiation for breast cancer can increase heart risks

Stephanie Watson

Radiation, on its own or coupled with other treatments, has helped many women survive breast cancer. Yet radiation therapy can cause the appearance of heart disease years later. New research published in JAMA Internal Medicine estimates that the increased lifetime risk for a heart attack or other major heart event in women who’ve had breast cancer radiation is between 0.5% and 3.5%. The risk is highest among women who get radiation to the left breast—understandable, since that’s where the heart is located. The heart effects of radiation begin emerging as soon as five years after treatment. However, future heart risk should not be the reason to abandon this important component of treatment. Cancer experts are doing more and more to minimize the amount of radiation the heart receives.

New presurgery drug approved for early HER-2 breast cancer

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Women with early-stage HER-2 positive breast cancer may benefit by taking a drug called pertuzumab (Perjeta) before undergoing breast surgery. By shrinking breast tumors before surgery, the drug is expected to lead to less invasive operations and a greater chance of a cure. Perjeta was initially approved in 2012 to treat late-stage breast cancer that had spread to other parts of the body. Yesterday the FDA approved it for pre-surgery use. Keep in mind that the use of Perjeta before surgery has only been approved for women with HER-2 positive breast cancer. In this form of the disease, which affects accounts for one in five cases of breast cancer, the malignant cells overproduce something called human epidermal growth factor receptor-2. Such tumor cells tend to be more aggressive than other types of breast cancer cells.

Angelina Jolie’s prophylactic mastectomy a difficult decision

Stephanie Watson

Angelina Jolie revealed yesterday in a New York Times op-ed article that she underwent a double mastectomy even though she doesn’t have breast cancer. She did that because she carries a gene (BRCA1) that substantially increases her chances of developing the disease. Her mother’s 10-year losing battle with ovarian cancer helped guide her decision. Women who carry BRCA1, BRCA2, or who have at least two close relatives—a mother, sister, or daughter—who have had breast or ovarian cancer are candidates for prophylactic mastectomy. Some women who develop cancer in one breast often have both breasts removed to avoid a recurrence of the disease. Taking time to make the decision, and talking it over with a trusted and knowledgeable expert, is an important part of the decision-making process. Having as much information as possible before choosing prophylactic mastectomy is as empowering as making the decision itself.

Alcohol: a heart disease-cancer balancing act

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

The message that drinking a little alcohol is good for the heart has gotten plenty of attention. A new study linking alcohol with increased risk of dying from various cancers may temper that message a bit. About 4% of cancer deaths worldwide are related to alcohol use. A new study shows the in the United States, alcohol causes 3.5% of cancer deaths, or about 20,000 cancer-related deaths each year. The most common alcohol-related cancers were mouth, throat, and esophageal cancer in men, and breast cancer in women. At the same time, drinking alcohol in moderation (no more than two alcoholic drinks a day for men and no more than one a day for women) has been linked to lower rates of heart disease and deaths related to it. Advances in genetics may one day let us predict more accurately who can use alcohol in moderation and who should avoid it completely. Until then, it’s best to personally weigh the benefits and risks, ideally with a trusted health care provider.

For early breast cancer, lumpectomy is at least as good as mastectomy

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

When it comes to fighting cancer, “get it out” is a common and understandable response. It’s what prompts some women with early-stage breast cancer to choose mastectomy, an operation to remove the entire affected breast. Results from the largest-ever observational study offers reassurance to women who choose a more conservative approach—removal of just the tumor and some tissue around it (lumpectomy) followed by radiation therapy. In fact, the study showed that, as a group, women who chose lumpectomy plus radiation had lower death rates from breast cancer and all causes than women who chose mastectomy. The women who appeared to reap the biggest survival benefit from lumpectomy plus radiation therapy were those over age 50 with estrogen-positive breast cancer, with 13% lower mortality from breast cancer and 19% lower for all causes. The results were reported online today in the journal Cancer. For early-stage breast cancer, mastectomy has been proven to cure or at least retard the disease. It’s a reasonable and understandable choice, especially given how well breast surgeons today can reconstruct a breast. For women who choose to have lumpectomy plus radiation therapy, the new study provides yet more scientific reassurance that this approach is at least as good as mastectomy.

Fear of breast cancer recurrence prompting women to choose prophylactic mastectomy

Stephanie Watson

Living through the physical and emotional toll of breast cancer is so traumatic that some women can’t bear the thought of doing it again. That’s why a growing number of women who have already been diagnosed with cancer in one breast are taking the drastic measure of having both breasts removed (a procedure called prophylactic mastectomy). Yet a University of Michigan study presented last week at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Quality Care Symposium showed that nearly three-quarters of women who had this procedure were actually at very low risk of developing cancer in the healthy breast. In other words, many women are unnecessarily exposing themselves to the potential risks of a double mastectomy—including pain, infection, and scarring. The new study suggests that more and better information about breast cancer recurrence—and the risks and benefits of prophylactic mastectomy—are needed as women consider this procedure.