Frequently asked questions about breast cancer

Posted: Saturday, October 31, 2009

1. How many women are affected by breast cancer?

The American Cancer Society estimates that 192,370 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed among women in the United States in 2009, and approximately 40,170 women will die of the disease.

2. Is breast cancer the most common cancer among women?

Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed non-skin cancer among women.

3. Can men get breast cancer?

Breast cancer in men is rare, but it does occur. An estimated 1,910 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, and approximately 440 will die of the disease. Men account for less than 1 percent of all breast cancer cases.

4. Who is most at risk for developing breast cancer?

Several factors contribute to the risk of developing breast cancer. Aside from being female, age is the main risk factor.

As age increases, so does the risk of developing breast cancer. In fact, more than three out of four women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are 50 or older.

Family history and genetics also contribute. Postmenopausal obesity and weight gain are risk factors, as are having a personal history of breast cancer, certain types of benign breast disease and several hormone-related factors.

5. What effect does a family history of breast cancer have on a woman's risk of getting the disease?

Women with a strong family history of early breast cancer - two or more close relatives diagnosed before age 50 - are at increased risk of developing the disease. However, the majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no close relatives (mother, sister or daughter) with the disease, and most women with a family history will not develop breast cancer.

6. Why is early detection important?

Numerous studies have shown that early detection saves lives and increases treatment options. The five-year survival rate for breast cancer is 98 percent among individuals whose cancer has not spread beyond the breast at time of diagnosis.

7. What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is a low-dose, x-ray procedure that enables doctors to see the internal structure of the breast and possibly detect breast cancers that cannot be felt. These smaller tumors are more likely to be confined to the breast, meaning treatment is more likely to be successful.

8. When should women have mammograms?

Yearly mammograms are recommended starting at age 40 and continuing for as long as a woman is in good health. Women with serious health problems or short life expectancy should discuss ongoing early detection testing with their health care providers.

9. Does mammography detect all breast cancers?

While mammograms detect the majority of breast cancers, they are not perfect and fail to detect about 10 to 20 percent of breast cancers.

10. Is mammography the only technology currently used to screen for breast cancer?

Mammography is the standard tool for early detection. Other imaging techniques, however, are under investigation. These include MRI, positron emission tomography (PET), and ultrasound.

Some of the techniques are currently used to follow up on suspicious findings from a physical exam or mammogram or along with mammography in women with increased risk for breast cancer.

11. What should women do other than get mammograms?

In addition to finding breast cancer early through mammography, women can actually reduce breast cancer risk by making healthy lifestyle choices. Many studies indicate that being overweight increases the risk of breast cancer among post-menopausal women, so all women should strive to maintain a healthy weight.

In addition, moderate to vigorous physical activity has been shown to decrease breast cancer risk among both pre-menopausal and post-menopausal women. Weight control and regular physical activity are also very important for breast cancer survivors. There is convincing data that obesity is associated with breast cancer recurrence.

Data from a large study of breast cancer survivors showed that higher levels of physical activity after treatment reduced breast-cancer recurrence and death by 26 percent to 40.

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