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Health: Beating Cancer

2 minute read
Sanjay Gupta, M.D.

One out of every eight women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer in her lifetime–a statistic that includes my mother. Her cancer was diagnosed more than 10 years ago, and like more and more breast-cancer survivors these days, she’s doing just fine. In fact, survival rates have never been higher, thanks to regular mammograms and improved treatments, according to a study released last week in the New England Journal of Medicine in conjunction with breast-cancer awareness month. Nearly 98% of women with early-stage breast cancer today will survive at least five years. Most will live long, full lives.

On the other hand, the incidence of breast cancer is also increasing. An estimated 211,240 cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women this year (and 1,690 cases in men) in the U.S. These numbers have been rising slowly but steadily since 1987, probably also as a result of better screening.

But from the point of view of a doctor–and a son–the news on breast cancer has mostly been good lately. Two weeks ago, for example, the results from a large trial of Herceptin, a medicine approved for late-stage patients, showed that it dramatically reduced recurrence in early-stage patients as well–by about 50%. Because Herceptin works by blocking a protein called HER2 that signals cells to divide and grow too fast, it is valuable only for the 20% to 30% of patients whose tumors are HER2-positive. Still, the news was greeted by many specialists as the biggest breakthrough since tamoxifen.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot you can do to reduce your risk of getting cancer in the first place. Drinking only in moderation helps, as does eating in moderation (obese women are twice as likely to die from breast cancer). And since we know that estrogen fuels these tumors, women at risk for breast cancer should consider alternatives to hormone therapy.

Sanjay Gupta is a neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent

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