The American Cancer Society estimates that about 230,480 American women will be diagnosed with new cases of invasive breast cancer this year, and, of those women, nearly 40,000 will lose their lives to the disease. Though the statistics are sobering, new medical advances and increased public awareness have led to a gradual decline in the number of breast cancer-related deaths over the past 20 years.
In recognition of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, SR spoke with Dr. Teresa Murray Law, a medical oncologist with the Kellogg Cancer Center at NorthShore University HealthSystem. Each day, Dr. Law interacts with newly diagnosed patients and conducts follow-up visits with current patients who are undergoing therapy. She splits her time between the NorthShore hospitals in Highland Park and Evanston, which both have innovative “multi-disciplinary” breast clinics that allow patients to meet with all of the doctors who will coordinate and be involved in their care.
Who should receive screenings for breast cancer and when?
We usually recommend mammograms to begin at about age 40, for most women. Some women are recommended to have imaging studies earlier, such as women who have a very strong family history of breast cancer, who have the cancer genetic gene (BRCA1 or BRCA2), or who have had radiation treatment to the chest area (as part of a treatment most commonly seen in Hodgkin’s disease, but it could be other forms of radiation treatment); these women should start imaging between the ages of 25 and 30. We encourage all women to start self breast examination in their 20s and 30s, even before screening mammography starts at age 35–40. We recommend that mammograms are done once a year, and that a health care professional (usually a gynecologist or primary care physician) does a breast health exam once a year.
Do you have any words of advice that you typically give patients, after they’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer?
I let them know, first of all, that breast cancer is not one disease. There are different types of breast cancer, and we make sure that we review each patient’s specific situation to come up with what is the most comprehensive or optimal treatment plan for that individual. I also let them know that we have a very large supportive network that goes beyond their visit with the physicians and the nurses; they meet as part of our comprehensive cancer center. We have social workers, nutritionists, and pharmacists that are available to them, so there are many people who are working on their behalf, in many ways, to support them through it. The message I try to give my patients is one of understanding and hope—an understanding and knowledge of her disease process and treatment choices, and hope for the future.
What are some promising new technologies or procedures for breast cancer treatment?
One focus of future therapies is to use molecular markers or gene expression to subtype breast cancers, as breast cancer is not one disease. These technologies that subtype breast cancers may allow medical oncologists to provide more targeted or directed therapies; and these targeted or directed therapies may be given simultaneously or in sequence to optimize treatment responses or benefits.
To learn more about breast cancer prevention and treatment, visit breastcancer.org.