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Thought Leadership in Action


Where Is America in the Fight Against Breast Cancer?

October was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is why we saw pink everywhere — ribbons, water bottles, even pink perfume.

But just how aware are you about where we really are in the fight against breast cancer? Where are we in terms of the latest treatments? And how does a breast cancer diagnosis affect women, not just physically, but emotionally, financially and socially?

Here’s what you need to know.

Progress on Mortality Rates

Mortality rates for breast cancer have improved in the past several decades. Dr. Rod Rohrich, a Dallas-based reconstructive surgeon and co-founder of the AiRS Foundation, which provides financial assistance for reconstructive surgery to breast cancer survivors, says breast cancer mortality rates in the U.S. substantially declined between 1975 and 2010.

According to the American Cancer Society,  close to 100 percent of women with stage 0 or stage I breast cancer will live at least five years after diagnosis, as will about 93 percent of those with stage II breast cancer. But the picture is more complicated than it seems. Many factors can contribute to a person’s individual prognosis, such as the stage of the disease and the patient’s age and overall health.

Early Detection Is Crucial

Early detection remains a critical factor for breast cancer patients’ long-term prognosis, and also for the improvement in survival rates. “There are a number of reasons for the decrease in death rates — including advancements in technology, access and surgical technique — but the increased awareness around routine screening and early detection is at the top of the list,” says Dr. Aparajita Sohoni, lead physician at QTbreasthealth in Novato, California.

Survival rates for more advanced stages of the disease are much lower than the overall five-year rate — the figure is about 72 percent for stage III breast cancers and about 22 percent for stage IV. “Early detection can mean earlier initiation of treatment,” Sohoni says. “Ideally, all cancers would be detected before they have had a chance to metastasize or spread.”

Treatments Are Advancing

Breast cancer remains one of the most common forms of cancer for women, with about 1 in 8 women diagnosed at some point in their lifetime. But new treatments are helping to reduce the impact of the disease.

“New drugs are becoming available and treatment for metastatic breast cancer is becoming more effective,” Sohoni says. “Treatments like certain tyrosine-kinase and PARP inhibitors are examples of FDA-approved advancements that show promise.”

Rohrich says genetic testing is playing a role as well. “The increased use of genetic testing for screening to detect breast cancer transmitted genetically allows women to plan accordingly,” he says.

A Breast Cancer Diagnosis Hits More Than Physical Health

The disease can have many effects on patients, both physically and emotionally. Patients face feelings of depression and isolation. “Being diagnosed with cancer is undeniably traumatic,” Sohoni says. “Sleepless nights, lack of appetite, depression, tears and anguish are just some of the physical and emotional reactions often felt by women who are told they may have a potentially life-threatening disease.”

They also have to navigate the financial effects of treatment. The ability to pay for screening and treatment — plus breast reconstruction if they so desire — are major problems for breast cancer patients, Rohrich says.

Sohoni says a diagnosis can have significant social effects as well, and family relationships can affect diagnosis and treatment. “Women often feel like they must play the role of caregiver, so our own health needs tend to fall by the wayside,” she says. “For instance, moms will book appointments for their children’s annual physicals but neglect to make one for themselves. A bump here or a pain there often goes ignored by many women who simply feel like they must take care of everyone else first.”

Sohoni credits greater awareness driven by organizations like the American Cancer Society as starting to change that dynamic. The more awareness there is of the importance of screening and early detection, the better the long-term health outcomes, she says.


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