It’s October and it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month once again. Whatever our views of BCAM, it does present an opportunity to work towards a more informed kind of awareness about this disease that affects growing numbers of women and men around the world.
In this post, we’re going to look at six important facts about breast cancer that are less well known than they should be.
1. Breast cancer has become the most common cancer worldwide.
In 2020, breast cancer surpassed lung cancer as the most commonly diagnosed cancer worldwide based on estimates produced by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Breast cancer is now the 5th leading cause of cancer deaths for the global population as a whole, the IARC estimates show.
And for women in many countries, it is the leading cause of cancer deaths. Lung cancer causes more deaths in Northern America, Northern Europe, China and Australia/New Zealand.
2. Breast cancer strikes women across the age groups, and the rate of breast cancer diagnosis in younger women is increasing.
About 41% of women diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States are in their 50s, 40s and younger, and almost a third of breast cancer deaths are in those age groups.**
Although rare in women under the age of 40, the incidence of breast cancer in this age group has been increasing since 2007, with most of the change reflecting an increase in young women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer (MBC). Sometimes referred to as distant disease, MBC is breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body such as the bones, lung, liver or brain.
3. Men get breast cancer too, and tend to get diagnosed at later stages of the disease.
Because there is less awareness of male breast cancer, men who are diagnosed with breast cancer tend to be diagnosed at later stages of the disease and, as a result, they’re more likely to die from the disease.
Symptoms and signs of possible breast cancer in men, similar to those in women, include a painless lump, changes to the nipple or skin covering the breast, or nipple discharge.
The American Cancer Society’s Breast Cancer in Men is one resource for information on risk factors, diagnosis, staging and treatment. The Male Breast Cancer Coalition is a patient advocacy organization working to raise awareness of male breast cancer around the world.
4. Breast cancer is a complex set of diseases that have different physical signs and symptoms as well as different molecular characteristics.
These are the three most common types of invasive breast cancer, or breast cancer that has spread outside the ducts or lobules where it originates into the surrounding breast tissue:
- Invasive ductal carcinoma: The most common type of invasive breast cancer, IDC accounts for about 80% of all invasive breast cancers.
- Invasive lobular carcinoma: About 10% of breast cancers are invasive lobular carcinomas.
- Inflammatory breast cancer: This type is less common, representing about 1-5% of all breast cancers. It often does not cause a breast lump or show up on a screening mammogram. It also tends to be aggressive. Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer include breast swelling, purple or red color of the skin, and dimpling or thickening of the skin of the breast. “9 questions about inflammatory breast cancer, answered” from MD Anderson Cancer Center provide more information about this less-well known type of breast cancer.
There are also at least four molecular subtypes of breast cancer. The newer, targeted treatments for breast cancer are based on the molecular characteristics of the individual subtypes, in contrast to chemotherapy, which kills fast-growing cells in the body.
5. To end deaths from breast cancer, we need to find out what causes metastasis and how to intervene to stop the process even after it has started.
Metastatic breast cancer is responsible for nearly all of the 40,000+ deaths from breast cancer in the United States each year.
Despite the addition of several new targeted treatments for MBC in recent years, the decline in breast cancer mortality each year has been very slow, and even slower than it had been in the 2000’s.*
To end deaths from breast cancer, researchers need to find out how to stop the process of metastasis, in which tumor cells spread to other parts of the body. Although a true “cure” may not be possible, the question is whether we can treat the disease in such a way that patients live for a very long time with good quality of life.
I’ve written about some of the innovative approaches being studied in this post, some of the ways progress against MBC can be accelerated in this post, and about the need for research that is specifically focused on MBC in this post.
6. We do not all receive treatment of similar quality for breast cancer. This is one of the reasons there are major, unacceptable differences across populations in both outcomes and quality of life.
Disparities in breast cancer treatment, in which certain populations are less likely to receive the standard-of-care treatment for their disease, are one of the factors that contribute to differences in outcomes. I’ve written about that other issues around ending breast cancer disparities in this post.
Some advances in the science behind breast cancer care are leading to a better understanding of when less aggressive treatment is needed. For example, the Oncotype DX genomic test helps determine, for those with hormone receptor-positive early breast cancer, when the risk of recurrence is low and chemotherapy is not needed. But your likelihood of receiving this important test and being able to avoid chemotherapy has a lot to do with where you are treated for breast cancer. I’ve written about Oncotype DX in this post.
There’s much more to know of course, but these are a few of the facts about breast cancer that could help change our perceptions of this set of diseases and the urgency of research directed at finding cures along with policy changes to ensure everyone who does have to deal with breast cancer receives high-quality care.
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