Breast Cancer Screening
- Longtime advice giver Deidre Sanders, 77, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Now, she’s making a point to advise other women to prioritize breast cancer screenings and speak up about symptoms should they appear.
- Breast cancer is a common cancer that has been the subject of much research, so there are many treatment options out there. Mammograms, a standard screening procedure for breast cancer, and self breast exams can save lives.
- The American Cancer Society (ACS) says women should begin yearly mammogram screening for breast cancer at age 45 if they are at average risk for breast cancer but earlier if they are at a higher risk. The ACS also says those aged 40-44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year, and women age 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms.
Sanders was the beloved “agony aunt” (a British term for a female advice columnist) behind the long-running column “Dear Deidre” in The Sun newspaper before retiring at the end of 2020. She’s still one of the voices behind the similar phone-in section of the British daytime TV program This Morning. But instead of enjoying her semi-retirement, the popular advice-giver has been dealing with breast cancer.Read More
“I must have let at least a month pass while I wondered, ‘Is it anything to worry about? Is it just muscular? I am 77, after all, is it just the aches and pains of getting older?'”
When she finally called and talked to an advanced nurse practitioner, Sanders was told to come in that same day.
“She saw me in person that afternoon, thought she could feel a difference in the right breast and put me on the NHS [The National Health Service] two-week cancer pathway (the referral process where anyone suspected of having cancer is seen within two weeks for a hospital diagnosis),” she wrote. “I was booked in just ten days later when they put on an extra clinic the Saturday before we went away.”
Upon completing her mammogram and ultrasound scan, she was booked for a biopsy. That’s when doctor’s discovered her cells were malignant and she had breast cancer. For treatment, she has surgery to remove the carcinoma on Saturday.
“I was telling the This Morning team before last week’s problem phone-in that I have a teeny, tiny carcinoma, a cluster of malignant cells in a duct in my right breast,” she wrote. “This is labelled high-grade, which means it is the sort that would grow and spread aggressively — had it not been discovered so early.”
Sanders is grateful her cancer was spotted when it was, but she’s still kicking herself for not getting the recommended screening done when she turned 70.
“I happen to be among a cohort of several thousand women who, by error, did not get invited for a mammogram when they turned 70,” she explained. “We were offered it a couple of years later, but by then I reckoned I must be too old to need it any more as the NHS stops inviting you for a screening after that age. Hah!”
Now, she’s using her platform to encourage readers and listeners to speak up about any symptoms as soon as they appear and prioritize screenings.
“I will be telling my story on This Morning today urging all women to go for breast screening when invited, and women over 70 to use their right to request screening every three years,” she wrote. “Please do!”
Understanding Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is a common cancer that has been the subject of much research. Many women develop breast cancer every year, but men can develop this cancer too – though it is more rare, in part, due to the simple fact that they have less breast tissue.
There are many treatment options for people with this disease, but treatment depends greatly on the specifics of each case. Identifying these specifics means looking into whether the cancerous cells have certain receptors. These receptors – the estrogen receptor, the progesterone receptor and the HER2 receptor – can help identify the unique features of the cancer and help personalize treatment.
“These receptors, I like to imagine them like little hands on the outside of the cell, they can grab hold of what we call ligands, and these ligands are essentially the hormones that may be circulating in the bloodstream that can then be pulled into this cancer cell and used as a fertilizer, as growth support for the cells,” Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, previously told SurvivorNet.
One example of a type of ligand that can stimulate a cancer cell is the hormone estrogen, hence why an estrogen receptor positive breast cancer will grow when stimulated by estrogen. For these cases, your doctor may offer treatment that specifically targets the estrogen receptor. But for HER2 positive breast cancers, therapies that uniquely target the HER2 receptor may be the most beneficial.
The Importance of Breast Cancer Screening
Screening for breast cancer is typically done via mammogram, which looks for lumps in the breast tissue and signs of cancer. The American Cancer Society (ACS) says women should begin yearly mammogram screening for breast cancer at age 45 if they are at average risk for breast cancer. The ACS also says those aged 40-44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year, and women age 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms.
For screening purposes, a woman is considered to be at average risk if she doesn’t have a personal history of breast cancer, a strong family history of breast cancer, a genetic mutation known to increase risk of breast cancer such as a BRCA gene mutation or a medical history including chest radiation therapy before the age of 30. Beyond genetics, family history and experience with radiation therapy, experiencing menstruation at an early age (before 12) or having dense breasts can also put you into a high-risk category. If you are at a higher risk for developing breast cancer, you should begin screening earlier.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Connie Lehman, chief of the Breast Imaging Division at Massachusetts General Hospital, said people who hadn’t reached menopause yet should prioritize getting a mammogram every year.
“We know that cancers grow more rapidly in our younger patients, and having that annual mammogram can be lifesaving,” Dr. Lehman said. “After menopause, it may be perfectly acceptable to reduce that frequency to every two years. But what I’m most concerned about is the women who haven’t been in for a mammogram for two, three or four years, those women that have never had a mammogram. We all agree regular screening mammography saves lives.”
It’s also important to be on top of self breast exams. If you ever feel a lump in your breast, you should be vigilant and speak with your doctor right away. Voicing your concerns as soon as you have them can lead to earlier cancer detection which, in turn, can lead to better outcomes.