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Breast Health & Disease Archive


Latest thinking on mammograms for older women

Updated October 16, 2014

New evidence shows the tests may benefit women older than age 75.

Just as it is for younger women, routine breast cancer screening for older women is debated. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends against routine mammograms for women 75 and older at average risk of breast cancer. But the American Cancer Society and other health agencies recommend that screenings continue annually as long as women are in good health. "That's because the best data we have for mammography is for women between the ages of 40 and 75. That doesn't mean mammography won't reduce the death rate from breast cancer after age 75; it's just never been studied in randomized controlled trials," says Dr. Phoebe Freer, a radiologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Ask the doctor: Heart risks of breast cancer treatment

Updated September 24, 2014








Image: Thinkstock 

Q. I had radiation and chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. My cancer doctor sent me to a cardiologist for an ultrasound. Are there cardiac risks to cancer treatments?

A. Radiation to the chest can harm the heart muscle, arteries, and valves. In women who have had breast radiation, the lifetime risk of having a heart attack or another major cardiac event goes up approximately 3%. Women who have radiation to the left breast, which is nearer the heart, have a higher chance of problems, but the overall dose of radiation also plays a role. Radiation-related heart effects can emerge as soon as five years after treatment, so women who have breast cancer at a younger age may develop heart problems earlier than would otherwise be expected.

Breast cancer screening: Options beyond the mammogram

Updated June 13, 2014

The mammogram remains the foundation of breast cancer screening, but variations on this test can improve detection for some women.

The mammogram isn't a perfect test, but it's the best one we have right now for identifying breast cancers early, which is why it remains the cornerstone of breast cancer detection. "For the woman at average risk for breast cancer, it is the only proven screening test," says Dr. Robyn Birdwell, associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School and section head in the Division of Breast Imaging at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Breast pain: Not just a premenopausal complaint

Updated July 7, 2020

Breast pain after menopause can come in many forms

Menopause has come and gone. Why do I still have breast pain?

In most cases, breast pain is a by-product of reproductive life: Like breast swelling, it waxes and wanes during the menstrual cycle, and it's one of the first symptoms of pregnancy. Many women expect breast pain to go away after menopause. When it doesn't, they may fear they have breast cancer. Fortunately, breast pain is rarely a symptom of cancer, regardless of age. Still, that possibility should be considered, along with a number of noncancerous conditions that affect the breasts.

Drug cuts breast cancer risk by more than half

Updated March 1, 2014

Image: Thinkstock

The drug anastrozole (Arimidex) reduced the chance of developing breast cancer by 53% in postmenopausal women at high risk for the disease (40 women developed breast cancer in the anastrozole group, compared with 85 women in the placebo group), according to a study published online December 12 in The Lancet. Anastrozole works by lowering the amount of estrogen in the body, which some breast cancers need to grow. This medication belongs to the class of breast cancer drugs called aromatase inhibitors. In this study, anastrozole was more effective than older breast cancer drugs called selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs), which include tamoxifen (Nolvadex) and raloxifene (Evista). However, it was similar in effectiveness to another aromatase inhibitor, exemestane (Aromasin). An editorial in the same issue stresses that researchers still need to determine whether breast cancer prevention drugs actually reduce deaths from the disease, which studies have not yet shown.

Medicines to prevent breast cancer

Updated January 1, 2014

Photo: Thinkstock

How signicantly can breast cancer prevention drugs
lower a woman's risk? Here's a look at the numbers.

  • For every 1,000 women at increased risk for breast cancer, treatment with tamoxifen or raloxifene would prevent seven to nine cases of invasive breast cancer.
  • Out of 1,000 women taking those drugs, an extra four to seven women would develop blood clots, and there would be four extra cases of uterine cancer per 1,000 women taking tamoxifen.

Source: Nelson, et al. Annals of Internal Medicine, 2013

Many women who could benefit from breast cancer prevention drugs aren't taking them.

Walking may lower breast cancer risk

Updated January 1, 2014

Walking for seven hours a week may help lower breast cancer risk. The more exercise women get, the lower their risk drops.

Long-term use of some blood pressure medicines is linked to breast cancer risk

Updated November 1, 2013

Taking calcium-channel blockers long-term to control high blood pressure may increase the risk of breast cancer. Other types of blood pressure drugs don't seem to have the same effect.

Radiation for breast cancer can increase heart risks

Published October 30, 2013

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

Published October 1, 2013

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.

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