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New Studies Holds Out Hope for Breast Cancer Patients

  • Carol Pearson

This year, 1.5 million people worldwide will be told they have breast cancer. A breast cancer symposium taking place outside of Washington (Oct. 1 through 3) features new studies on breast cancer screening, treatment, genetics and survival. Some studies are re-creating controversy over who should get mammograms and when, while others show progress in surviving breast cancer at any stage.

Less than a year ago, a U.S. panel of experts issued guidelines that caused confusion for millions of women who were suddenly told they did not need regular mammogram screenings until the age of 50.

Now a major new study shows mammograms for women in their 40s drastically cut their death rate from breast cancer. It was one of a several studies on breast cancer released at a symposium held near Washington.

The study followed one million women for 20 years. Researchers found that women between the ages of 40 and 49 who had mammograms at least every two years, reduced their chances of dying from breast cancer by 26 percent over those who did not have the regular screening.

Dr. Donna Plecha at Case Medical Center in Ohio says the screening makes sense. "You start at the age of 40, you have a much better chance of picking cancer up early, and I think that's the main bottom line," she said.

Last year the government panel said mammograms for women under 50 could cause unneeded anxiety, overexposure to radiation and costly unnecessary procedures.

Surveys show many doctors have ignored the panel's recommendations. Women who survived breast cancer are grateful.

"If I had not had a mammogram at age 40 I wouldn't be here today," said Nancy Gaul.

"That 10 years can make a huge difference. It's important that when they are making these recommendations that they realize the effect it has on families," added Anne Marie Flynn.

Breast cancer specialist Dr. Jennifer Obel says she agrees with the panel, but also with women in their 40s who want to have mammograms. "Women in the age range of 40 to 49 need to have a discussion with their physicians about the benefits of mammography and the potential risk and then determine through an informed discussion whether its warranted for them," she said.

Another study reviewed at the symposium shows women diagnosed with breast cancer are living longer because of improvements in treatment and screening. "I think we owe this to improvements in medical therapy, meaning chemotherapy, improvements in surgical approaches and improvement in the way of processing our care, meaning that we do it coordinated," she said.

Sixty years ago, a woman diagnosed with breast cancer had a 25 percent chance of living 10 years after the diagnosis. Now more than 75 percent of breast cancer patients live that long. The outlook is even better for patients with small tumors that had not spread. Eighty-six percent of these patients can now expect to live at least 10 years after diagnosis. And even women with advanced breast cancer are living longer.

Dr Obel says she expects to see continued improvements controlling this disease and she says she expects the results of breast cancer research to help in the treatment of other types of cancer.