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October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

This year, nearly 200,000 women will hear their doctors say the words, "You have breast cancer."

According to the American Cancer Society, 182,460 women (and some men) will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, including 4,910 in Georgia. Of those diagnosed with the disease, 40,480 will die, including 1,110 in Georgia, according to ACS.

Despite progress in detection and treatment, breast cancer is still the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women and the second-leading cause of cancer death for women.

During October and National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it's an excellent time to look at recent developments in breast cancer and advances on the horizon that hold the promise of saving thousands of lives every year.

Just in the past decade, breast cancer treatments have improved to the point that they are reducing the incidence of the disease by large margins. For example, the drug Tamoxifen is cutting breast cancer incidence by 49 percent in high-risk women. The genetically engineered antibody Herceptin is shown to improve the survival rate for women with advanced breast cancer and those with the inherited BRCA gene, which is linked to a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer. Breast cancer death rates for women 20-69 years old have declined 25 percent since 1990, thanks to early detection and treatment.

There promising new developments on the horizon, including:

- Computer-based or digital mammography, MRI and positron emission tomography (PET). MRI holds promise for spotting small breast growths and for determining the extent of a tumor after it has been detected.

- Cancer vaccines. A protein called carcinoembryonic antigen is present in 40 to 60 percent of breast tumors, as well as others. Researchers are putting the gene for CEA in the virus formerly used to vaccinate against smallpox and using it to produce both antibodies and immune cells against the tumors.

There are steps women can take to prevent breast cancer and to ensure that if they develop breast cancer, it's detected and treated early. The earliest sign of breast cancer is usually an abnormality detected through mammography before it can be felt by the woman or a health professional. Typically, breast pain results from non-cancerous conditions and is not the first symptom of breast cancer.

The major risk factors to getting breast cancer include being female and aging. Risk is also increased by inherited genetic mutations; a personal or family history of breast cancer; high breast tissue density; and high-dose radiation to the chest as a result of medical procedures. Also, race and ethnicity are also important factors in breast cancer risk. After age 40, white women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than African-American women. But black women under age 40 have a high incidence of breast cancer than white women. Statistics show that blacks are more likely to die from the disease.

Early detection is the best way to increase survival rates for breast cancer. In fact, the recent decline in breast cancer deaths can be attributed to a combination of early detection and early, improved treatment.

The American Cancer Society recommends these screening guidelines:

- Yearly mammograms are recommended starting at age 40. The age at which screening should be stopped should be individualized by considering the potential risks and benefits of screening in the context of overall health status and longevity.

- Clinical breast exam should be part of a periodic health exam, about every three years for women in their 20s and 30s, and every year for women 40 and older.

- Women should know how their breasts normally feel and report any breast change promptly to their health care providers. Breast self-exam is an option for women starting in their 20s

- Women at increased risk for breast cancer because of factors such as family history, genetic tendency and past breast cancer, should talk with their doctors about the benefits and limitations of starting mammography screening earlier, having additional tests or having more frequent exams.

For further information, call the American Cancer Society's toll-free number, 1-800-ACS-2345 or visit us at

Web posted on Thursday, October 02, 2008

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