Your Breast Cancer Survival Guide
The Latest Advances
This has been a banner year in the fight against breast cancer. Scientists have identified more accurate tools for screening younger women -- who often get the most dangerous types -- developed strategies to treat newly diagnosed pregnant women, and created better, less-toxic drugs to guard against cancer's return.
Breast cancer deaths plummeted 24 percent between 1990 and 2000, and survival rates are soaring. The estimated 213,000 women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States this year will have a relative survival rate of 71 percent after 15 years. In fact, research has made more headway combating breast cancer than it has against any other kind of cancer. Here's what's been fueling these stunning advances:
- All those pink ribbons and fund-raising walkathons have prompted more women to get mammograms, diagnosing cancer at earlier, more treatable stages. A group study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in October 2005 found that screening accounted for 28 to 65 percent of the total reduction in the breast cancer mortality rate from 1990 to 2000.
- Fewer women are getting breast cancer -- following decades of steadily rising numbers. The reason: After a landmark 2002 study revealed that hormone therapy increased the risk of developing breast cancer, millions of post-menopausal women stopped taking it. "We noticed the difference almost immediately," says Donald A. Berry, PhD, chairman of biostatistics and applied mathematics at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston. "If you have an undetected cancer that is being fed by estrogen and you cut off the food supply, its growth may slow drastically or it may stop growing and never develop into anything serious."
- But the really big advance is targeted therapy -- the use of drugs such as tamoxifen, Herceptin, and others to treat the specific biology of different tumors. "Twenty years ago it was one size fits all," says Gabriel N. Hortobagyi, MD, chairman of breast medical oncology at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. "Now it's changed dramatically."