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Breast Cancer Q & A

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women in the United States (other than skin cancer), impacting more than 192,000 women and their families.

Dr. Michael D. Wertheimer, Director of the BreastCare Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), answers questions about the disease and its treatment.

Q. What don't women know about breast cancer that they should know?

Dr. Wertheimer: There's been a lot of debate in the press about the value of mammography. What many women don't know is that mammography alone detects 60 to 70 percent of breast cancers and as such, these cancers are largely curable. With widespread screening and better treatment, the death rate from breast cancer is now declining for the first time in 100 years. Mammography isn't perfect, but it's a valuable, lifesaving tool.

Michael Wertheimer, MD, Director of the BreastCare Center at BIDMC

There's been a lot of debate in the press about the value of mammography. What many women don't know is that mammography alone detects 60 to 70 percent of breast cancers and as such, these cancers are largely curable. With widespread screening and better treatment, the death rate from breast cancer is now declining for the first time in 100 years. Mammography isn't perfect, but it's a valuable, lifesaving tool.

Q. Do most women get mammograms when they should?

Dr. Wertheimer: According to the National Cancer Institute, in 2008, more than 75 percent of women over 40 reported having a mammogram in the previous two years. While that number is good, it's not good enough. Screening compliance varies greatly in different parts of the country and depending on economic circumstances. Many women, especially in poorer communities, don't have access to mammography. Some may still not be educated about its importance. In Massachusetts, survey data collected by the Department of Public Health suggests about 84 percent of women over 40 have regular screening mammograms.

Q. What is the biggest change you've seen in fighting breast cancer?

Dr. Wertheimer: I have been working in this field for 35 years and it has changed dramatically, mostly due to the adoption of widespread screening, strong scientific support for less aggressive surgery, and better "systemic" therapy - drugs and hormone blockers given in conjunction with surgery and radiation. Office diagnosis is now the norm with individualized treatment, treatment options, counseling and multi-disciplinary teams coordinating care. It is a completely different field than even 10 to 20 years ago and more patients are cured, living longer and better with breast cancer. It has been very gratifying to witness and participate in these dramatic changes.

Q. In terms of the future of breast cancer treatment, what looks promising?

Dr. Wertheimer: The future of breast cancer research is very bright and hopeful. Scientists, like those here at BIDMC, are now focused at a molecular level to find the precise causes of a woman's breast cancer and then develop and target drugs to stop that particular cancer's progress. Some of these drugs are actually in clinical trial stages. The ultimate goal is to, of course, prevent breast cancer. While this still eludes cancer scientists, I believe that we will get there in our lifetime.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted March 2012

Contact Information

BreastCare Center
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Shapiro Building, Floor 5
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
Phone: 617-667-2900
Fax: 617-667-9711

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