Early detection key to high local breast cancer survival

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Bradley Johnson MD.

As October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month, it is timely to look at this disease in our community.

Around 300 women and one or two men are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in Walla Walla and the surrounding area. At Providence St. Mary Medical Center, where I am the medical director of imaging, one out of every five cancers we encounter is breast cancer.

The good news is that the large majority of these patients will have many years of survival -- or even be cured of their disease -- if their cancer is detected early enough.

Because the cause of breast cancer is not known, it cannot yet be prevented. So early diagnosis, if it occurs, remains the single most critical factor in surviving breast cancer. Nationally, more patients are surviving breast cancer mainly because it is being discovered sooner. This is clearly demonstrated by statistics gathered worldwide and fortunately also for our local patients.

In fact, survival rates of women treated here are actually better than regional and national averages. Our five-year survival for breast cancer patients is 98 percent compared to 89 percent nationally.

Discovering early breast cancer with imaging tests, while the cancer is too small to be felt or found during breast examinations, is the key to these improved outcomes. Women are now widely aware of the importance of annual mammograms. Mammograms are also now more frequently digital, which provides further advantage in seeing abnormalities. To this we add specialized imaging when needed, including ultrasound and, more recently, magnetic resonance imaging of the breast.

Minimally invasive image-guided biopsies of the breast are also now available in our community. This allows sampling of small abnormalities seen on a mammogram without performing an open surgery. While these abnormalities are less likely to be cancer, some are, and they are usually at an earlier stage.

The result of these advances is that the percentage of breast cancers found at the early stage has risen, and survival rates have risen with them. At Providence St. Mary, 49 percent of breast cancers were detected at early stages in 1998. By 2003, that percentage had risen to 51 percent, and in 2007 it rose again to 55 percent.

For all of those patients, that represents a better chance of a cure. This is the genuine progress in the fight against breast cancer for which we strive.

Dr. Bradley Johnson is medical director of imaging at Providence St. Mary Medical Center

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