By Richard Knox
With all the recent controversy over how often women should get mammograms, you might not realize that breast cancer is becoming an ever more-survivable disease.
But, alas, that’s not the case among black women in this country. Historically they’ve had the highest risk of dying if they get breast cancer among any ethnic group. And now, data from the American Cancer Society show that African-Americans have nearly caught up with whites over the past three years in their risk of getting breast cancer in the first place.
Given black women’s higher risk of dying from breast cancer, that’s particularly bad news.
Breast cancer accounts for one in every three malignancies among U.S. women — it’s the most common type if you don’t count non-melanoma skin cancers, which are usually inconsequential. More than 230,000 American women will get a breast cancer diagnosis this year, and about 40,000 will die of the disease.
But over the past 26 years, the overall U.S. breast cancer death rate has dropped by more than a third, according to recent research. That’s nearly a quarter-million living women who would have died from breast cancer at rates that prevailed among their mothers’ generation.
“Whether people realize it or not, breast cancer mortality rates have been dropping since about 1990,” says Carol DeSantis of the American Cancer Society, lead author of an update on the disease published Thursday in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.
Part of that success is due to widespread mammograms, which can find breast cancers at an early stage, although the contribution of regular mammogram screening is unclear.
“Screening has clearly contributed to lowering mortality, but we can’t say by how much,” DeSantis says.
Better treatments are clearly a big part of this success story — more effective chemotherapy, the estrogen-blocking drug tamoxifen, and drugs targeted at the protein HER2 and other growth promoters on the surface of some women’s breast cancer cells.
Put it together with our aging society — more women reaching the most breast cancer-prone years, and fewer women dying of the disease — and the result is record numbers of breast cancer survivors.
More than 3.1 million American women with a history of breast cancer are alive today, and the great majority of them are cancer-free, DeSantis says.
The number of survivors will reach 4 million within the coming decade.
But a closer look at the numbers shows that not all women are benefiting equally. Continue reading