Some evidence suggests a link between diet and breast cancer. Studies show that breast cancer is more common in populations that consume a high-fat diet than in populations that consume a low-fat diet. However, it is not yet known whether a diet low in fat will actually prevent breast cancer. Also, recent studies suggest that regular exercise may decrease the risk of breast cancer in younger women.
Research has led to the identification of certain alterations in genes that place women at a greater risk for developing breast cancer. Women with a strong family history of breast cancer may choose to have a blood test to see if they have inherited an alteration in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. Certain alterations in either of these genes increase a woman's chances of developing breast cancer. Special counseling before and after testing helps women understand and deal with the possible outcomes--both benefits and risks--of having a genetic test. For example, a potential benefit of genetic testing is that it gives women the ability to make informed medical and lifestyle decisions. However, information about having a genetic alteration could affect a woman's employment or her health, life, and disability insurance. Women who are concerned about an inherited risk for breast cancer should talk to their doctor. The doctor may suggest seeing a health professional trained in genetics.
Ongoing studies are looking at ways to prevent breast cancer through changes in diet. Other studies are looking for drugs that may prevent the development of this disease. In one study, the drug tamoxifen reduced the number of new cases of breast cancer among women at an increased risk for the disease.
Detection and Diagnosis
At present, mammograms are the most effective tool we have to detect breast cancer. Researchers are looking for ways to make mammography more accurate. They are also exploring other techniques, such as digital mammography (using computers to read mammograms), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), breast ultrasonography, and breast-specific positron emission tomography (PET), to produce detailed pictures of the tissues in the breast.
In addition, researchers are studying tumor markers - substances that may be present in abnormal amounts in the blood, urine, or nipple aspirates of a woman who has breast cancer. Some of these markers are used to follow women who have already been diagnosed with breast cancer. At this time, however, no blood or urine test is reliable enough to be used routinely to detect breast cancer.
Early Detection of Breast Cancer
When breast cancer is found and treated early, the chances for survival are better. Women can take an active part in the early detection of breast cancer by having regular screening mammograms and clinical breast exams (breast exams performed by health professionals). Some women also perform breast self-exams.
A screening mammogram is the best tool available for finding breast cancer early before symptoms appear. A mammogram is a special kind of x-ray. It is different from a chest x-ray or x-rays of other parts of the body. Screening mammograms are used to look for breast changes in women who have no signs of breast cancer.
Mammograms can often detect breast cancer before it can be felt. Also, a mammogram can show small deposits of calcium in the breast. Although most calcium deposits are benign, a cluster of very tiny specks of calcium (called microcalcifications) may be an early sign of cancer.