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Breast Health & Disease Archive
Caution: Cancer risk elevated in women with dense breasts
But new research offers reassurance that dense breasts don't raise risk of cancer death.
Dense breast tissue can make it harder to see breast cancer on a mammogram. Dense breasts have more glandular and fibrous tissue and less fatty tissue. Past research has found that women with dense breasts are more likely to get breast cancer. Higher blood levels of estrogen raise the risk both of dense breasts and breast cancer, possibly explaining the link. The association is so important that five states have now passed laws requiring that women whose mammograms show dense breasts must be notified of this fact.
Why breast density matters
What it means to have dense breasts—and how they can affect your breast cancer risk.
After a routine mammogram, your radiologist or doctor might have told you that you have dense breasts. But what exactly are dense breasts, and how can they affect your breast cancer risk?
Worry is driving some women to unnecessarily have both breasts removed.
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 drastic measures to avoid getting cancer in the other, by having both breasts surgically removed (a procedure called prophylactic mastectomy).
Alcohol: a heart disease-cancer balancing act
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.
Combination therapy may be better for one common lung cancer
For people with non-small cell lung cancer that carries a mutation in the gene KRAS, a combination of the drug selumetinib and the chemotherapy drug docetaxel may be more effective than chemotherapy alone.
In the journals: Breast cancer drugs linked to heart failure in older women
Older women who are being treated with trastuzumab (Herceptin), alone or with a class of chemotherapy drugs called anthracyclines, may be at increased risk for heart failure and heart muscle damage.
For early breast cancer, lumpectomy is at least as good as mastectomy
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
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.
Ask the doctor: What are breast calcifications?
Q. What can you tell me about cluster calcifications in the breast?
A. Calcifications in breast tissue are common: about 50% of women over age 50 have them. They may be large (macrocalcifications); these are usually noncancerous (benign) and caused by damage to the breast—for example, from previous surgery, trauma, infection, or radiation. Or they may be very small flecks of calcium (microcalcifications) that, on a mammogram image, look like grains of salt on a sea of gray. About 80% of microcalcifications are benign; however, they are sometimes an indication of precancerous changes or cancer in the breast.
Hope and healing for a breast cancer journey
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 Publishing, 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.
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