By Colleen Townsend, MD, Special to the Daily Republic
Cancer is a group of illnesses that result from an overgrowth of abnormal cells that spread through the body. Each cancer type is based on the cell that becomes abnormal and multiplies.
The body contains many cells and cell types that form the organs and tissues of the body. Normal cells die when they are old or damaged and are replaced with functioning cells. In cancer, abnormal cells do not die but continue to multiply though they do not function.
Research shows that these changes stem from damage to the cells’ genetic structure. Tumors are collections of abnormal multiplying cells that form a solid structure or mass. When cancers develop from blood cells, like leukemia, solid tumors do not form. A malignant cancer spreads to other parts of the body through the body’s blood and immune system. There are hundreds of types of cancer.
Many cancers are effectively treated or cured with a combination of therapies. Early detection through screening is a key factor to decrease the number of deaths and complications due to cancer illnesses. It is well established that effective screening for breast cancer leads to early diagnosis, which improves treatment options and successes.
Breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in women and is the second highest cause of cancer-related death in women. Breast cancer can occur in men but this is rare. Factors that increase breast cancer risk include having had breast cancer or non-cancer tumors of the breast before, having dense breasts, older age or radiation treatment to the chest. Exposure to the hormone estrogen (early periods, late menopause, delayed or no pregnancies before 35 years old) or taking hormone pills after menopause can also increase breast cancer risk. A family history of breast cancer or having genes that are associated with breast cancer will also increase the risk to develop breast cancer. Finally, alcohol and obesity are associate with increased breast cancer risk.
Screening for a disease uses a medical test to identify the presence of an illness early in its stage of development. A person’s individual risk for breast cancer will determine the age to start screening. The frequency of screening is recommended every one to two years or more often depending on a person’s risk.
The type of test or tools for screening vary based on an individual’s risk for cancer. Most women are screened with a review of the family history of cancers and a mammogram. A mammogram is a type of X-ray that takes a picture of the breast tissue. In this test, the breast tissue is pressed between two plates for a few minutes. Some women may need to have an ultrasound test if the mammogram is not normal. The ultrasound is used to better visualize abnormal parts of a mammogram.
Some women at high risk for developing breast cancer may also need a breast MRI in addition to the mammogram. The MRI uses magnets to take a more detailed picture of the breast to find tumors. In addition, women who have family members with breast and other cancer may also need a blood test that looks for inherited genes (BRCA) that run in families and are associated with risk for breast cancer.
Screening guidelines for breast cancer vary by each person’s individual risk and the family risk of cancer. All women should talk to their health care provider about their risks for breast cancer to determine the right screening program for early detection of breast cancer.
Colleen Townsend, MD, is with Partnership HealthPlan of California.