Health Matters: Screening, early detection important tools in detecting breast cancer

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Health Matters: Screening, early detection important tools in detecting breast cancer

Date: 10/19/17

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and pink is everywhere as people across the nation come together to raise awareness of breast cancer and its impact on our friends and loved ones. As the director of the Women's Health Institute at St. Peter's Hospital, I attend events year-round to share the importance of awareness, screening and early detection.

I often ask members of the crowd to stand if they are breast cancer survivors, and a handful of people will usually stand up. Even more stand when I ask how many people have a mother, sister, aunt or other family member who has been diagnosed. By the time I ask about neighbors, co-workers and friends, nearly everyone is on their feet. Unfortunately, one in eight women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime. In fact, St. Peter’s sees about 90 new breast cancer diagnoses every year, which represents roughly 22 percent of the cancers diagnosed and treated at the Hospital (compared to 12.8 percent of all cancers diagnosed nationwide).

There are only two ways to detect breast cancer: mammography and self-breast exams. I recommend that all women, not just those with a family history of breast cancer, receive a mammogram every year after the age of 40. Early detection significantly improves our ability to effectively treat the cancer. Just over 10 percent of new breast cancer diagnoses are patients who have the BRCA mutation, a gene that includes tumor suppressor proteins and leads to increased risk of female breast and ovarian cancers. This means that women without a family history are still at risk.

Breast self-exams -- the identification of an unusual, palpable lump, generally by women themselves -- are a highly effective method of detection. Women under the age of 50 still have very dense breast tissue, which can reduce the efficacy of mammograms because small lesions may go undetected. You can learn how to properly conduct a self-exam by contacting your primary care doctor or visiting www.nationalbreastcancer.com. If anything feels unusual, report it to your doctor immediately. Beginning self-exams at a young age is more important than ever, as we’re seeing an increase in diagnoses in women under the age of 50, and unfortunately, breast cancer in younger women is often more aggressive.

Mammography technology is improving, and the St. Peter’s Hospital Foundation is currently raising money for a new 3D mammography unit, known as tomosynthesis. These 3D machines produce higher resolution images, which can detect smaller lesions in dense breast tissue, increasing detection by up to 25 percent. Another benefit is that enhanced precision decreases patient callbacks by around 30 percent, helping our patients avoid unnecessary stress and anxiety.

For those who do receive a diagnosis, we have remarkable resources, technology and treatment options available for a community our size. People fighting breast cancer will collaborate with their provider, family and the Cancer Treatment Center at St. Peter’s Hospital to develop a personalized treatment plan. For every new cancer diagnosis in our community, a team known as the “tumor board” consisting of surgeons, oncologists, radiologists, pathologists, nurse navigators, geneticists and more, meet to evaluate the patient’s diagnosis, from the aggressiveness of the cancer to their lifestyle needs and requirements.

 An invaluable partner and source of support during treatment is your nurse navigator. Nurse navigators help patients through the entire process from receiving the news they need a biopsy to treatment and appointments. They are with patients every step of the way, always on hand to answer questions. Those who have experienced cancer know that it doesn’t just affect the body – the journey is emotionally and mentally challenging as well. There are disrupted routines, a feeling that uncertainty is the only certainty, and the illness and pain associated with the treatment itself. Nurse navigators help connect patients to all the resources they might need during and after their treatment.

I believe the best thing we can do to support one another is to talk openly and often about screening, and share the many stories of challenge and survival.

Alissa Abentroth, MD, FACS is a general surgeon and serves as the director of the Women’s Health Institute and Breast Care at St. Peter’s Hospital. She received her Medical Degree from the University of Washington School of Medicine and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in zoology from Carroll College. Abentroth is board certified in general surgery and is a member of the American Society of Breast Surgeons. She has practiced in Helena since 2011. 

 

 

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