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Good News About Breast Cancer

Breast cancer research has made significant progress in the past decade. Even if there was no further progress from today the number of women dying from breast cancer five years from now would continue to drop because of all the advances made in the last decade. Some highlights of progress that has been made are:

Breast cancer is now recognized as a collection of several specific diseases, which has led to a revolution in treatment (e.g. some tumors are stimulated by estrogen and/or progesterone). So drugs can be targeted against these specific tumors.

It has been learned that a tumor might be Her2 positive. This means that its cells churn out too much of the Her2 protein. This in turn usually spurs aggressive growth. Now there is a targeted drug called Herceptin that can cut the risk of recurrence in half when combined with chemotherapy in women with early stage Her2 positive cancers.

Recently a particularly fast-spreading type of tumor called basal-like breast cancer has been identified. It is now thought that this may contribute to why African American women are more likely to die and to die at a younger age from breast cancer than whites.

There are more ways to detect cancer than standard X-ray films and standard film mammography. There is now a digital mammogram. With this, a breast X-ray is captured electronically and displayed on a computer screen where it can be magnified and tweaked for better contrast. This may be more accurate for women under 50 who are premenopausal or perimenopausal and women of any age with dense breasts. Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a strong magnet and radio waves create detailed 3-D cross section images of breast tissue, captured on computer. A contrast agent is injected intravenously and helps highlight suspicious areas. This may be used if the mammogram is inconclusive. Another test that can be used is Breast Ultrasound. This uses high frequency sound waves passing through breast tissue and is captured on a computer screen. This helps distinguish between usually benign fluid-filled cysts and solid masses. This could be used if there is an inconclusive mammogram.

Additionally, PET and CT scans are being developed specifically for the breast. Also the Digital Breast Tomosynthesis (DBT) is another technique scientists are looking at with currently available mammograms, overlapping breast tissue can hide cancers or create worrisome shadows. This is a problem DBT will help solve by X-raying a series of cross sections to create a computerized 3-D image. The radiologist is then able to look at “pages” of individual sections of breast tissue to find cancers that would have otherwise been undetected.
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