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Early breast cancer detection still saves lives

Woman examining her breast

Woman examining her breast

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Updated: May 12, 2012 8:02AM



W e all know the importance of early detection when it comes to successfully treating cancer, and this is especially true for breast cancer treatment. Women are constantly encouraged to be vigilant about their self breast exams as well as their mammograms, yet some critics believe that the medical community might be overstating the importance of early detection.

According to researchers in Norway, around 15 to 25 percent of tumors detected by mammograms would not have caused problems for the woman in her lifetime. However, once doctors detect a tumor, most encourage their patients to treat the cancer aggressively, whether it is via radiation, chemotherapy, mastectomy or some combination thereof. While these options can be quite intense and difficult to endure, doctors and patients have always believed that early detection and treatment saved lives.

Yet, with this new study, some women are now confused about whether breast cancer screening and early detection measures are wise for them. 

This is not the first time that patients have received conflicting information from the medical community about cancer screening and treatment. A recent announcement from the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommended that healthy men no longer undergo Prostate-Specific Antigen (P.S.A.) blood tests, which measure the level of P.S.A. in a man’s blood.

A high level of P.S.A. could potentially be a sign of prostate cancer, yet medical experts now believe that P.S.A. tests can often cause unnecessary pain in patients who might otherwise not even develop prostate cancer. A certain level of P.S.A. in the blood is normal and won’t necessarily lead to the development of cancer, and even though P.S.A. testing can help to detect small tumors, it has not been shown to have a long-term effect in combating aggressive and fast-growing cancers.

The difference is that early detection in breast cancer treatment can and has saved innumerable lives. The mortality rate from breast cancer has decreased by 30 percent since 1991. While it is impossible to calculate the exact number of lives saved by early screening, we know that the earlier breast cancer is treated, the more likely it is that the treatment will be successful and less invasive

.

Yet this doesn’t mean that women must blindly agree to their doctor’s suggestion for treatment or that they should choose the most aggressive option. There is so much fear when it comes to breast cancer, and this can cause patients to make decisions out of anxiety over the worst possible outcome, instead of their own individual case. The best thing you can do is listen to your doctor’s advice, do some research, and get a second opinion before undergoing aggressive treatment.

It is your body and you have the right and responsibility to safeguard your health, but the answer in every case will not be the same. We do know one thing: Early detection has saved many lives, so while breast cancer screening might have led to a few cases of over-treatment, there were many more women who were saved as a result.

Dr. Berman is the star of “In The Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman” on OWN and director of drlauraberman.com.



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