Breast cancer is the second most common cancer affecting women in the United States — only skin cancer is higher. According to the American Cancer Society, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their life, but early detection and advancements in breast cancer treatment mean more women are successfully conquering the disease.
In this video, San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks with Farah Nasraty, MD, a hematologist and oncologist at Scripps Cancer Center and Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo, about breast cancer and the latest treatments.
Numerous factors affect breast cancer risk. Typically, breast cancer is diagnosed in women older than 50, but it also affects many younger women.
Other risk factors include genetic mutations, such as the BRCA gene mutation, and family history; if a woman’s first-degree relative such as her mother or sister develops breast cancer or if several relatives on one side of her family have it, her risk is higher.
The most common symptom of breast cancer is a lump in the breast or underarm. Dr. Nasraty recommends that women do monthly breast self-exams by using a flat hand to feel around the breast and underarm for any unusual lumps or bumps.
“There are many other findings in the breast that can be just benign, meaning non-cancerous. You can have cysts that can come and go. There can be changes around your period,” says Dr. Nasraty. “Just because you feel something does not mean it's cancer, but it does mean you should get it checked by your doctor.”
Other symptoms include redness in the breast, nipple changes or discharge, and changes in the breast skin. If you have any of these, see your doctor. The earlier breast cancer is detected, the more likely it is that treatment will be successful.
Breast cancer screening exams can often detect cancer before symptoms develop, which is why an annual imaging exam — usually a mammogram — is so important.
In the past, yearly mammograms were recommended for women age 50 and older, but current guidelines advise women to begin mammograms at age 40. If you have a family history of breast cancer or other high-risk factors, your doctor may recommend screening with a mammogram or breast MRI even sooner.
Thanks to early detection and improved treatments, death rates from breast cancer have dropped 43% since 1989 and continue to decrease.
“It’s a really exciting time for medicine. Our imaging is getting better and better and we’re able to detect breast cancers earlier,” says Dr. Nasraty. “And there’s been an explosion of treatments which are also leading to improved outcomes and improved survival for our patients.”
Treatment depends on the type of breast cancer and whether it has spread from the breast to other parts of the body. Breast cancer treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of these.
Dr. Nasraty says one of the most significant treatment advancements has been in radiation therapy.
“Radiation is spectacular in terms of how much it’s changed. We see patients who are able to do two or three weeks of radiation therapy whereas before it was six or eight weeks,” she says. “And the appointments themselves are often quite short, like 15 minutes — much shorter than what it used to be in the past.”
At Scripps, breast cancer treatment is multidisciplinary, meaning team members with different areas of expertise all come together to develop a treatment plan that not only treats the cancer, but supports patients throughout their diagnosis, treatment and recovery.
“There are so many more team members beyond the physicians, and they’re integral to care. We really couldn’t treat patients as well as we do without having specialized social workers who provide support groups and care, pharmacists who help monitor for medication side effects, our nursing team in the chemotherapy infusion room, and our nurses that help our patients when they're at home,” says Dr. Nasraty.
“I think the future is very hopeful for all breast cancer patients and for our Scripps patients.”