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American Society of Clinical Oncology Advancing Cancer Progress for 50 Years

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Breast Cancer

In the past four decades, breast cancer screening, treatment and prevention have been transformed. Nine out of ten women with breast cancer are alive five years after their diagnosis, and breast cancer mortality has fallen by more than a third since its peak in the 1980s. Advances that contributed to this progress include:

  • Screening: Thanks to widespread use of mammography, MRI scans, and other screening techniques, over 90 percent of breast cancers are diagnosed at an early stage, when treatments are most effective.
  • Surgery: In the early days of treatment, women commonly had their entire breast and even part of their chest wall removed during surgery. Today, surgeries are far less radical, with no loss in effectiveness. Women with early-stage breast cancer can usually have only their tumors removed – called lumpectomy – along with as few as one surrounding lymph node. These advances enable a growing number of women to keep their breasts, reduce pain and other side-effects and allow for a quicker return to their normal lives.
  • Drug therapies: Refined chemotherapy regimens, hormone therapy and targeted drugs such as trastuzumab (Herceptin) have prolonged women's lives, improved their quality of life, and boosted cure rates to their current highs. "Adjuvant" drug treatment after surgery has played a particularly important role in improving outcomes.
  • Radiation therapy: Improved radiation techniques reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and enable many women to safely undergo less extensive surgery. The recent availability of shorter radiation regimens allows some women to successfully complete their radiation therapy in as little as a week.
  • Prevention: Drugs such as tamoxifen (Novaldex) and raloxifene (Evista), as well as preventative surgeries, have been proven to reduce the risk of breast cancer in women at high risk for the disease, including those with genetic mutations that predispose them to the disease.
  • Advocacy: Breast cancer advocates, including thousands of survivors, have driven a remarkable surge in attention and resources to fight the disease. Yet it's far too soon to declare victory. Some forms of breast cancer remain stubbornly resistant to treatment. New therapies are needed for women with advanced stages of the disease, for whom today's treatments extend and improve lives but too rarely offer cures. Profound racial disparities in breast cancer mortality also need to be better understood and addressed.
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