Breast cancer is curable if detected early enough. Women should not be afraid to talk to their doctor if they find a lump or have other symptoms.
We’ve come a long way in the fight against breast cancer, and additional progress is made each year to better understand the enemy.
While there’s still much work to be done, the good news is breast cancer is curable, if caught early enough.
Doctor John West, medical director with the Tampa Bay Oncology Center in Largo, said about 90 percent of breast cancer cases are curable when found in the early stages.
Even better news is that fewer women are being diagnosed with advanced stages of breast cancer these days, which West credits to aggressive education campaigns about the importance of breast self-exams and mammograms.
West has 30 years of experience as a radiation oncologist. An oncologist is a physician who studies all cancers and specializes in different areas of treatment – radiation, surgery and chemotherapy. In some cases, treatment is coordinated between all three.
“It can be a team effort,” he said.
Women who are diagnosed in the early – curable – stage will first consult with their doctor to decide if they should have a mastectomy or not. West said the vast majority of women prefer lump removal, lumpectomy, followed by radiation therapy, if there has been no spread of the cancer.
He said radiation therapy is time consuming, but it allows women to preserve their breasts – the contour, shape and texture. He said the results of the biopsy, which determines the type of tumor, most often determines the best treatment method.
Women who are diagnosed with advanced stages of breast cancer, when the tumor has grown too big or the cancer has spread into the skin, lymph nodes or other parts of the body, are harder to cure, and doctors may not be able to cure them. These women are most likely to receive attention from all three specialties.
West said women with advanced stage cancer likely would be treated with chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before having surgery or radiation therapy. The goal of this “palliative care” is to extend life and improve the quality of life. He gave an example of radiation therapy being used on a patient whose cancer had spread to the bone. He said radiation could be used to kill only the cancer cells in the bone to help alleviate the pain and let the bone heal.
He said while many advances in treatment have been made, “there still was a critical need for research,” especially for treatment methods for advanced stages and women who relapse after their cancer has been cured.
Researchers are continuing to understand hereditary breast cancer and to identify those genes that put women at high risk. He said the percentage of women who carry the gene for hereditary cancer is very low, although he suspects the number is probably “higher than we know.” More work also is needed to develop testing methods, which West said are “tremendously complex.”
“Eighty-five percent of cancers are the garden variety caused by a random mutation,” he said.
But breast cancer tends to run in families. So discussing your family’s medical history with your doctor is very important.
“It’s an enormously complicated field,” West said. “I’m always learning.”
Radiation therapy has been refined about as much as possible, he said. But other treatment methods, including hormonal therapy and targeted therapies, are being used and studied.
“We’re not quite there yet,” he said. “But someday we’ll find that silver bullet.”
West said the most important thing women need to remember is “don’t be afraid.”
“Early detection is so important, 90 percent of early stages can be cured – that’s the progress that’s been made,” he said. “The tragedy is when they hide the tumor and don’t seek help until it may be too late.”
He said breast cancer was “great shining example” of the progress being made in the fight against all cancers.
West said he’s seen a change in the perception of patients in the 30 years he’s been an oncologist.
“When I started practicing, there was such a negative attitude about cancer and people would come in with advanced cases. They would almost be in denial,” he said. “But thanks to public awareness, that’s changed.”