PUBLISHED: 4:39 PM on Wednesday, September 12, 2007
New technology, treatments help fight breast cancer
LUBBOCK, Texas - Cancer isn't just one disease.

That's why it takes an army to find new ways to prevent, detect and treat all forms, including breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women in the United States and is the leading cause of cancer deaths among women age 40 to 59, according to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Nearly 20,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this year and about 40,000 women will die.

But there is hope.

More and more women are surviving breast cancer thanks to local and national breast cancer research, said Dr. Everado Cobos in the division of hematology and oncology at the Southwest Cancer Center.

The keys to turning breast cancer from a death sentence to a manageable chronic disease are early detection, risk assessment, more effective treatment and prevention, Cobos said.

"Every time that we see a woman with cancer that has spread, there's been a failure along that line," he said.

New technology is making it possible to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages.

Digital mammography and MRI now can be used with traditional film mammography to screen for breast cancer.

Digital mammography allows physicians to better serve breast cancer patients under 50, patients with dense breast patterns and menopausal patients, Cox said.

In these specific groups, digital mammography can detect 25 to 28 percent of cancers.

In the fall, patients at the Arrington Center also will have access to MRI-guided biopsies, Cox said.

MRI has the potential to expand the ability of mammograms in the early detection of breast cancer, according to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

But MRI and digital mammography can't replace film mammograms, Cox said.

"You shouldn't just get an ultrasound; you shouldn't just get an MRI - you can miss early breast cancer if you use ... MRI without the mammograms," he said.

All women 40 years and older should get a mammogram, Cox said.

Anyone with a family history of breast cancer should be screened before they turn 40.

Breast cancer risk increases with age, but Cox said anyone - especially those with a family history of breast cancer - can develop the disease.

"For the most part, patients tend to be older," he said. "But you shouldn't discount it because of your age."

Eighty-five percent of people with breast cancer don't have a family history of the disease, said Damini Desai, genetic counselor at the Arrington Center.

Five to 10 percent of breast cancer is genetic. The gene can be passed to both males and females, Desai said.

Male breast cancer isn't as easily seen as female breast cancer, but the disease occurs in about 1 percent of men, she said.

"If you have a male in the family who develops breast cancer," she said, "that's a big clue to visit with a genetic counselor."

Genetic testing for breast cancer has been available for about 10 years.

An increasing number of insurance companies are paying the $3,000 to find out whether breast cancer is in a patient's genes, Desai said.

People who carry the breast cancer gene can delay the onset of the disease by undergoing extra screening, getting screened at a younger age and taking preventative medication.

Some women who carry the breast cancer gene opt to have preventative mastectomies or to have their ovaries removed before they develop cancer, Desai said.

"It's about making informed decisions," she said.

New breast cancer findings have been discovered in recent years through basic cancer research and clinical trials.

"The advances that we have seen in the last 10 years are a direct result of women participating in clinical trials," said Dawn Howerton, clinical oncology research supervisor.

Cancer researchers at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center have mainly been focusing on manipulating a person's immune system to fight cancer and determining why some cancers develop immunity to treatment, Cobos said.