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by Dr. Daniel Roney

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, but it is hard to imagine that there are very many who are not aware of it. Almost everyone has either direct experience with breast cancer, or somebody close to them has been affected. Over the course of their lives, one out of every eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Those who have either a mother or sister with breast cancer are at even higher risk.

Now for the good news. Improvements are being made in the available treatments for breast cancer. As a result, survival rates give us reason for optimism. The chances of surviving 5 years after diagnosis of invasive breast cancer is 90%. The average 10-year survival is 83%. If the cancer is confined to the breast, 5-year survival is 99%.

Mammography remains the primary method for screening for breast cancer. The US Preventative Services Task Force gives a strong recommendation for screening mammography every 2 years from age 50 to 75. The decision to begin screening at age 40 is less strongly supported, and the decision to start screening earlier should be discussed between the patient and provider. Many insurances will cover mammograms yearly, and other organizations recommend yearly mammograms, especially in the 50-54 age range.

The main drawback to breast cancer screening is findings that lead to biopsy of benign lesions. About 80% of all breast biopsies are negative. One can imagine that the notification of an abnormal mammogram can be a very anxiety-producing experience, and biopsies can be uncomfortable.

While the diagnosis of breast cancer can be quite distressing, there are excellent treatments available that give cancer survivors excellent odds for long-term survival. Early detection of breast cancer through mammography further improves chances of a good long-term outcome.