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, 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.
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 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.