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Detecting Breast Cancer – from Vigilance to Suspicion to Confirmation

October 02, 2019

A cornerstone of health consciousness for adult women includes being on the lookout for breast cancer. There’s plenty of evidence that this eternal vigilance is worth it.

The path from routine screening to suspected cancer to confirmed diagnosis usually is the shorter part of a longer cancer journey. But better understanding of these preliminary steps can help set you on the right course for a successful cancer fight.

Over the past 30 years, research shows a steady decline in mortality rates due to a combination of early detection and improvements in treatment. Early detection is key because cancer in its early stages and localized to one location is the most treatable.

Screening and testing methods and technologies continue to advance and include 3D mammograms which are currently available in some areas, and new blood tests that are in development. These innovations and all screening options are intended to work in combination with this essential, albeit decidedly low-tech recommendation: Discuss with your doctor your individual risk factors, such as age, menopausal status, and family history.

Self-Exams

Starting in their 20s, women should check their breasts monthly for lumps or unusual changes in feeling, appearance, or discharge. Pay attention to how your breasts normally look and feel, and immediately report any changes to a physician.

Conducting regular self-exams is important in detection, but it has limitations in detecting early stage breast cancer, when symptoms do not always appear. That’s why physicians recommend additional screenings.

Screenings

Preventative, proactive screenings, such as mammograms, clinical breast exams, and MRI, are the most effective methods for early detection. Screenings can find cancer cells before symptoms are present.

Mammograms, which use low-dose X-ray images to identify potentially-cancerous breast changes, are the most common screening. Mammograms identify any abnormal areas in the breast, such as calcifications (white spots) and masses (tumors) that can only be detected from screenings. According to the American Cancer Society, women who receive regular mammograms are more likely to detect cancer early, require less aggressive treatment, and have better outcomes.

Women should have clinical breast exams at regular intervals depending on age. Physicians may recommend an MRI for some women.

Confirmation and Identification

If a suspicious area is found, additional tests can confirm if the area is benign or cancerous. Also, breast surgeons often perform procedures to collect tissue to determine if it is cancerous and identify the tumor characteristics.

Tests on tissues from the tumor help in determining staging and identifying tumor markers. Tumor markers provide valuable insights to a patient’s care team, such as how aggressive a cancer is, most appropriate treatments, and whether it is responding to treatment.

If a tumor is cancerous, breast surgeons consult with patients and their care teams about the best course of treatment for the individual patient. More surgical options and techniques are now available to help patients make a very personal decision that is right for them. 

Ultimately, patients are their bodies’ best advocates, and it is important for women to actively take control of their health with regular preventative checks for breast cancer. Early detection is important, but with the myriad of treatment options available and more promising treatments on the horizon, we offer women ever greater hope for successful outcomes.


For upcoming webinars visit www.TexasOncologyFoundation.org