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To Your Health: Breast cancer forum on Oct. 20

Dr. Alexander Starr

Dr. Alexander Starr

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Updated: November 4, 2012 6:03AM



For more than 20 years, the observance of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month each October has provided a time to reflect on loved ones who have won and lost the battle against breast cancer.

It’s also an opportunity to raise awareness toward finding a cure, including encouraging all women to get a regular mammography screening to detect any problems in early stages.

On Oct. 20, Ingalls Health System and the Southland Coalition to Conquer Breast Cancer will host its 13th annual Conquering Breast Cancer Forum at the Matteson Holiday Inn. The forum focuses on medical and cultural issues surrounding breast cancer in the African-American community.

The good news is, according to the American Cancer Society, fewer women are dying from breast cancer today than 20 years ago, largely because of advances in early detection, screening and treatment.

Compared to African-American women, Caucasian women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer, but are less likely to die of it.

In fact, beginning in their 20s and into their 50s, black women are twice as likely to die of breast cancer as white women who have breast cancer. In older black women, cases of breast cancer decline, but the high death rate persists.

In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control reported that breast cancer was the leading cause of cancer death for African-American women, ages 45 to 64.

One possible reason is that African-American women tend to have more aggressive tumors — although why this is the case is not yet known.

Breast cancer tends to appear in African-American women at a younger age and in more advanced forms. In fact, studies estimate that 20 to 30 percent of breast cancers in African-American women are triple-negative breast cancers. That means the cancers lack estrogen and progesterone receptors and don’t respond to drugs that work by preventing these hormones from reaching the cancer cells.

Triple-negative cancers are also HER-2 negative (another tumor target) and therefore don’t respond to any of the treatments known to block the cancer’s growth. Triple-negative breast cancers tend to grow and spread more quickly than most other types of breast cancer.

Other studies suggest that African-American women have denser breasts — one of the stronger predictors of risk for breast cancer.

In addition to higher risk factors, African-American women aren’t getting screened for breast cancer as often as other populations, and when they do, it is later in life. Many times, these mammograms are not routine screening mammograms, but rather are done because the woman or her doctor felt a mass.

A final factor is that fewer than 3 percent of African-Americans diagnosed with cancer are enrolled in clinical trials within the United States. The reasons include fear, cultural misunderstandings and reduced access to health care.

However, at Ingalls Cancer Care, more than 25 percent of all cancer patients enrolled in clinical trials are African-Americans. As a result, this patient population is benefitting from the most advanced cancer treatments available anywhere.

Many women with early breast cancer have no symptoms. That’s why it is crucial to get screened.

Starting at age 40, all women should have a yearly screening mammogram (sooner with a family history of breast cancer) and a physician breast exam. It is also important to perform regular breast self-exams. If you are unsure how to perform one, have your health care provider show you.

The most common sign of breast cancer is a new lump or mass. A painless, hard mass that has irregular edges is more likely to be cancerous, but breast cancers can also be tender, soft or rounded. For this reason, it is very important to have any breast mass or lump checked by a health care professional experienced in diagnosing breast diseases.

Other signs of breast cancer include swelling of all or part of the breast, skin irritation or dimpling, pain in the breast or nipple, thickening of the nipple or breast and discharge other than breast milk.

To identify your personal potential risk for breast cancer, take Ingalls Health System’s free online risk assessment. Simply go to www.Ingalls.org/MyHealth and click on the BreastCancerAware link. This free risk assessment takes only five minutes to complete. At the end, you will receive personalized, strictly confidential information that will help you assess your current health status. take action to reduce your level of risk for breast cancer and receive, at your option, free continuing education via email about your specific health and risk factors.

Knowing your risk profile will enable you to take control of your health and provide you with the best defense against breast cancer.

Dr. Alexander Starr is an oncologist and hematologist on Ingalls Memorial Hospital’s medical staff and is medical director of the Ingalls Richard K. Desser, M.D., Comprehensive Breast Center.



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