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Johns Hopkins Bayview News - Breast Cancer: Finding It Early Is Key

Fall 2012

Breast Cancer: Finding It Early Is Key

By: Tracey Fitzgerald
Date: September 3, 2012


Older woman preparing to get a mammogram with help of young, female radiology tech

Early detection of breast cancer saves thousands of lives each year. If more women took advantage of breast cancer screenings, many more lives could be saved. The goal of screening exams for early breast cancer detection is to find cancers before they start to cause symptoms. Screening refers to tests, such as digital mammography, to find a disease, such as cancer, in people who do not have any symptoms.

If breast cancer is found because it’s already causing symptoms, it’s more likely to have already spread beyond the breast. In comparison, breast cancers found during screening exams are more likely to be smaller and still confined to the breast, which improves the chances that breast cancer can be diagnosed at an early stage and treated successfully.

Digital mammography takes the “wait” away

Today, technology makes it even easier and faster to detect the presence of lesions, tumors or other signs of breast cancer. Similar to how a digital camera is capable of storing and showing an image immediately after a picture is taken, digital mammograms are stored and analyzed electronically. This gives physicians an opportunity, on the spot, to focus in on areas of question or concern and adjust the contrast of images as needed, to create clearer, easier-to-interpret views of a woman’s breast.

In addition to the obvious benefit of immediately available results, many patients tend to prefer digital mammography over traditional film mammograms because they require much less radiation.

“The Breast Center offers the most advanced digital mammography technology available on the market,” says Semra Engin, M.D., radiologist. “We have always promoted the importance of early detection and screenings, and digital mammography means that the patient doesn’t have to wait at all to get results. It helps prevent anxiety and keeps the process moving along.”

Breast Biopsy: What to Expect

If a lump is found in a patient’s breast during a routine examination, mammography, ultrasound or MRI, the physician may order a breast biopsy. A biopsy involves the removal of a sample of breast tissue, cells or fluid, which is then viewed under a microscope to determine if the lesion or mass detected is malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous).

The type of breast biopsy a physician orders depends on the type of material that he or she requires to make an accurate diagnosis. Fine-needle aspiration biopsies extract a sample of cells or fluid from the breast. Core needle and vacuum-assisted biopsies are performed to collect a small sample of breast tissue. In cases when part or all of a lump must be removed in order to conduct a thorough assessment, an open, or surgical biopsy may be required. At the Johns Hopkins Breast Center, ultrasound and stereotactic needle biopsies are often performed, using the latest technology to assure that samples are extracted from the precise location in question.

“A breast biopsy is almost always performed when an abnormality is detected in a woman’s breast,” says Mehran Habibi, M.D., surgical oncologist and director of the Johns Hopkins Breast Center. “It allows us to fully understand the composure of a breast mass and what our next steps should be, in the event that cancerous cells are present.”

In many cases, there is nothing a patient must do ahead of time to prepare for a breast biopsy. Following the procedure, it is common to experience breast tenderness as well as light bruising, swelling or bleeding, which can be controlled with ice packs or over-the-counter pain remedies. Heavy lifting, as well as any activities that would involve use of the chest muscles, should be avoided for one to two days.

Who should get a mammogram?

Annual mammograms are recommended for women age 40 and over, or younger in cases where a family history of breast or ovarian cancer exists. The American Cancer Society (ACS) has established guidelines for early detection of breast cancer in women without symptoms. While it’s recommended that women over the age of 40 have an annual mammogram, those between the ages of 20 and 40 are encouraged to have a clinical breast exam every three years. In many cases, a woman’s physician will conduct this examination in conjunction with an annual gynecologic check-up. Additionally, the ACS encourages women to begin conducting breast self-exams as early as their 20s.

Quick Facts About Early Detection

  • Every woman is at risk for developing breast cancer.
  • The average woman has a 12 to 13 percent chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime.
  • 220,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in 2012.
  • Breast cancer will claim more than 40,000 lives in 2012.
  • Breast cancer risks increase with age.
  • The survival rate for those whose cancer is diagnosed in Stage I is 98 percent. Those who are diagnosed in Stage IV have a survival rate of just 16 percent.

To schedule a screening mammogram, call 410-550-8282.

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