Early Diagnosis of Breast Cancer Is Key to Survival

One out of eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. The good news is that breast cancer can be effectively treated if detected early -- and mammograms are the best line of defense.

By Donna Wagstaff, M.D.
Family Practice Specialist
St. Anthony’s Medical Center

The highest risk factor for breast cancer is one no one can control – it is simply being a woman.  One out of eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.

The second highest risk factor is age.  Most breast cancers and breast cancer deaths occur in women aged 50 and older.  Just five percent of all breast cancers occur in women under age 40.

The good news is that breast cancer can be effectively treated if detected early.  The survival rate after treatment for breast cancer diagnosed in its earliest stages is higher than 90 percent.

To ensure early detection, the American Cancer Society guidelines advise:

  • Women age 18 and older should perform a monthly breast self-exam, reporting any breast changes to a health care professional right away.
  • Women between ages 18 and 39 should have a clinical breast exam performed by a physician every three years; after age 40, every year.
  • Women ages 35 to 40 should have a baseline mammogram.  After age 40, women should have a mammogram every one to two years.  A mammogram (an X-ray picture of the breast) is the single most effective method to detect breast changes, long before physical symptoms can be seen or felt.

The most common risk factors of breast cancer, aside from age and gender, include:

            Personal History:  Women who have had breast cancer or non-cancerous breast disease are more likely to develop breast cancer.

            Family History: Women whose mother, sister, daughter or other close maternal relatives have had breast cancer are at greater risk.

            Breast Cancer Genes:  In rare cases – only 5-10 percent of breast cancers – women may inherit an alteration in one of two genes regulating breast cell growth.

            Estrogen-related risk factors:  Women who begin menstruating before age 12, have a first pregnancy after age 25 or have no children have an increased risk.

When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, the basic treatment choices are surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and hormone therapy.  When breast cancer is diagnosed in its earliest stages, more treatment options are available, treatment can be less disfiguring and less toxic and survival rate is improved.

Mammography is the best line of defense in the fight against breast cancer.  Discuss your health history with your doctor and set up a regular mammography screening schedule that’s right for you.  It could save your life.


Dr. Wagstaff, a family practitioner with a special interest in women’s health, is a member of St. Anthony’s Physician Organization.  She practices at Telegraph Road Family Medicine, 4438 Telegraph Road, 314-543-5996.  For a referral to any St. Anthony’s physician, call 314-ANTHONY (268-4669) or 1-800-554-9550.

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