Breast cancer has almost reached "epidemic" proportions in the United States of America. It is the leading non-skin cancer in women, especially in the age group of 50-70 years. It has the second highest death rate, after lung cancer. Indeed, it is predicted that one in eight American women will have breast cancer diagnosed sometime during their lifetime!
It is good to know, however, that with the improvement in health screening, health education, encouragement to pursue a better lifestyle, and newer treatment modalities, more of these cancers are being diagnosed early and treated better. As a result, death rates have fallen by about 25% since the 1980's.
Early detection is still the hallmark of a good prognosis following treatment. To this end, governments have begun to fund breast screening programs for women of fifty years and older. This is mainly by teaching breast self-examination and performing routine annual medical checkups with mammography. Women in higher risk groups perform these checks at an earlier age. Breast self-examination is done monthly, a week to ten days after the period. The technique should be taught in a standard fashion so that a woman gets to know the consistency of her breasts and does not become frightened by changes that have nothing to do with cancer. Indeed 85% of breast lumps seen in medical practice are not cancerous! On the other hand early cancers are not ignored but treated promptly with excellent results.
Screening Mammography is an x-ray of the breasts which is mainly done to detect abnormalities of the breast tissue before a lump can actually be felt. Mammograms that are done when a lump is detected are to define a baseline for future reference and to examine the remainder of the affected breast. The technique is not 100% accurate and sometimes has to be augmented by ultrasound examination, especially for younger, denser breasts.
Simple suctioning of cells under local anesthetic into a needle can give information about the type of cells in a lump. The cells are squirted on a slide and stained. A diagnosis can be made within a few hours. This will guide the surgeon to perform a simple excision of the lump if benign cells are seen, or a more radical procedure if malignancy is noted.
The three main steps for the early detection of breast cancer are to:
1. Carry out breast self-examination monthly from the age of forty
2. Have a medical checkup once a year with breast examination and a Pap smear as part of a general examination 3. Have an annual mammogram from the age of fifty if there are no major risk factors for the disease, but sooner if there are.