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.
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.
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.
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.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Sponsored by national public service organizations, professional medical associations, and government agencies, it aims to make sure women all across America have the information they need to identify breast cancer early and take all of the steps needed to fight it. This year, Harvard Health Publications, where I am the Chief Editor of Books, offers a unique contribution to Breast Cancer Awareness Month: our newest book, Hope and Healing for Your Breast Cancer Journey. This book, part of the Chicken Soup for the Soul Health series, weaves the stories of more than 25 women diagnosed with breast cancer and their family members with practical information about managing a support team, getting through treatment, healing body and soul, and more. In this post, I share a moving story from the book, “I Miss My Breasts,” written by Linda A. Fiorenzano, a project and risk management professional who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 36.
Researchers at Kansas State University have developed a blood test that rapidly detects breast cancer (as well as non-small cell lung cancer) in very early stages, long before symptoms appear or the cancer can be seen by other methods. The experimental test identifies enzyme patterns that differ from one type of cancer to another. According to the researchers, the test can detect very early breast cancers (stages 0 and 1), as well as early lung cancers (stages 1 and 2), within an hour, with 95% accuracy. However, they tested only 32 participants with various stages of breast or lung cancer, as well as 12 people without cancer. Whether finding cancer that early makes a difference for treatment and survival remains to be seen.
For years researchers have been trying to weigh the benefits of finding early breast cancers against the risks related to false positives (the spots that turn out to be harmless). This work has sparked some bitter public debates and confusion for women over flip-flopping recommendations. The latest salvo comes from a review of the results of mammograms among more than 12 million women in 18 European countries. The results support the idea that routine mammograms can prevent deaths from breast cancer without causing undue harm. The findings support the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force’s recommendation that women between the ages of 50 and 74 have a mammogram every other year. Women at higher risk of developing breast cancer may need mammograms earlier than age 50, or more often than every other year.
Daily exercise appears to reduce a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, according to a study published online in the journal Cancer. The type or intensity of the exercise didn’t seem to matter, as long as it was done often. How much exercise is needed to lower breast cancer risk? In this study of 3,000 women, 10 to 19 hours a week (about two hours a day) had the greatest benefit. Age didn’t seem to matter—physical activity reduced breast cancer risk in younger women during their reproductive years and older women after menopause. What did make a difference in the effect of exercise was weight gain—especially after menopause. Gaining a significant amount of weight essentially wiped out the benefits of exercise on breast cancer risk in older women.
Results of a study presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago indicates that an experimental drug combination could be effective against HER-2-positive breast cancer. The new therapy, called trastuzumab emtansine (T-DM1), combines a monoclonal antibody with a potent chemotherapy agent. The combination is exciting because Herceptin guides the cell-killing chemotherapy agent to HER-2 receptors on breast cancer cells. This focused attack targets cancer cells and largely bypasses healthy cells, which the chemotherapy drug would otherwise damage. In the study, which included nearly 1,000 women with HER-2-positive breast cancer that had spread either within the breast or elsewhere in the body, 65.4% of the women taking T-DM1 were still alive after two year, compared to 47.5% of those on standard treatment for this type of cancer. In addition, women on T-DM1 experienced far fewer side effects.
Breast cancer isn’t just a woman’s disease. Men can get it, too—about 1% of breast cancer is diagnosed in men. Since few men know that, they often fail to recognize its earliest signs and end up seeing a doctor later in the process than women do. The result: Men face treatment for larger and more advanced tumors, and their cancer is more likely to have spread to other parts of the body. The largest study to date on outcomes in men with breast cancer indicates that the five-year survival rate for women with breast cancer was 83%, compared to 74% for men. Even men diagnosed with early stage breast cancer still fared worse than women, although the gap closed for men and women diagnosed with later-stage disease. Since breast cancer in men isn’t often on doctors’ radar screens, men should be aware and check themselves.