Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers affecting women and is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women in the United States. Treatments for breast cancer can vary based on the type of breast cancer and the stage at which the cancer is detected. In general, the earlier the cancer is diagnosed, the more effective the treatments are at preventing recurrence of breast cancer.
Some women and men are at increased risk of developing breast cancer based on having close relatives with breast or ovarian cancer, or because of inherited mutations in specific genes that make breast cancer development more likely. Testing for these genetic changes is available, and, for patients at increased risk, there are treatment and screening options to decrease breast cancer occurrence. The most common mutations are the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, but there are many other less common mutations. Genetic counselors are available to meet with individuals who are worried about their risk of breast cancer and to ensure that the proper genetic testing evaluation is completed.
For women at average risk for breast cancer, screening mammography starting around 40 years of age and repeating every one to two years is the most common and effective screening method. The exact recommendations as to when to start screening and how often to have your mammogram differs slightly between different professional organizations, so discussing this with your doctor is important. Women are encouraged to have a general sense of their bodies and bring any new concerns, such as new breast lumps, to the attention of their physician. Just because you had a normal mammogram recently does not mean that you can't develop a new breast cancer, and prompt evaluation is always recommended.
Treatment for breast cancer depends on the type of cancer and the stage at diagnosis. There are three general types of breast cancer. The first is hormone receptor-positive breast cancer, which can be treated with medications to block estrogen reaching the cancer cells or medications to decrease the amount of estrogen the body produces. The second type is HER2 positive breast cancer, which is treated with specific medications that interact with the HER2 receptor on the outside of breast cancer cells. And finally, there is triple negative breast cancer, which does not express hormonal receptors or HER2 receptors and is treated with chemotherapy medications. In addition to these treatments, surgery and radiation therapy are important parts of the cancer treatment. The type of surgery and radiation recommended is often based on the stage of breast cancer at the time of diagnosis, so coordination among the breast cancer treatment team is important to good patient care. There are many advances in breast cancer, and these improved treatments are discovered through clinical trials. Participation in a trial is something that individual patients can do to advance our knowledge and treatment of breast cancer.
To learn more about the family of experts at UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center, or to schedule an appointment, visit UTHealthsaMDAnderson.org or call 210-450-1000.
Author: Kate Lathrop, M.D.
UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center