With all the data on genetics and breast cancer, it is often unnerving to think about my family’s long history with the disease – two aunts and two grandmothers, to be exact. The latest family breast cancer scare? My mom.
Last week, my mom came home with the results of her annual mammogram. Through the years, the feedback had always been positive, but this time (after deciphering all the medical jargon) the doctor’s letter noted the detection of breast calcifications in need of further testing. My initial reaction was to presume something catastrophic was about to happen. But that day, my aunt made a reassuring point: breast cancer is no longer a death sentence.
I contemplated her statement for a second. I went through the mental Rolodex of women I know who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and beaten it. My shocking revelation was that more women than ever are surviving this historically deadly illness. My next question was, why?
Reports have shown that breast cancer mortality rates have been in decline since the 1990s, primarily due to the advances in screening technology. Another factor in the decline is improved treatment techniques, such as Active Breath Control in external-beam radiation therapy and brachytherapy in internal-radiation treatments. Such advances allow for more targeted radiation therapy that quells our fears of healthy organs being exposed to radiation.
Along with these medical marvels, changes in behavioral patterns have also contributed to the decrease in overall U.S. cancer deaths. For example, most people don’t know that there is a link between smoking and breast cancer risk. In a recent CNN article, Dr. Otis Brawley, Chief Medical Officer of the American Cancer Society, stated that “part of the decline in cancer mortality rates is because of smoking cessation and some of our successes in battling tobacco.” It is comforting to think that behavioral change may be able to bring down rates of breast cancer further.
In terms of preventative medicine, there is no better way than the current best practice of regular mammograms. A new study found that although there have been significant improvements in treatment, the best preventative measure we have for breast cancer deaths is still early detection through annual mammograms. This means there should be a greater focus on educating women about the benefits of mammograms and improving access to the procedure. Consider how such initiatives would add to the current 36% decline in female breast cancer deaths since their peak in 1989.
There is even greater hope for decreasing mortality rates as the medical community continues to find new ways to screen for cancer. Take, for instance, the bizarre but pioneering use of bacteria to help doctors detect the presence of cancer in urine samples. If that’s not ending on a hopeful note, I don’t know what is!
So as I patiently wait for my mother’s final results, I remain optimistic. Breast cancer can mean a lot of things, but it no longer has to mean the worst.