IU Simon Cancer Center expert offers breast health and cancer prevention tips for women and men

INDIANAPOLIS -- (Oct. 1, 2007) -- In addition to the bright reds, oranges and yellows seen as the leaves turn this fall, pink will be everywhere during October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer accounts for nearly one in three cancers diagnosed in American women. About 178,480 women will be found to have invasive breast cancer in 2007, according to the ACS. More than 40,000 will die. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women, exceeded only by lung cancer.

However, it doesn't just strike women.

The ACS estimates that more than 1,700 cases of breast cancer in men will be diagnosed in 2007. The disease will kill about 460 men.

It is not only women who pass on to female relatives the genes for developing breast cancer, said Robert Goulet Jr., M.D., medical director of the Breast Care and Research Center at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center and professor of surgery at Indiana University School of Medicine. "It is important to recognize that risk can be inherited from the mother’s or father's side of the family," he said.

In addition, a woman is at greater risk of developing breast cancer if she has one of the following:

  • A personal history of breast, ovarian or colon cancer
  • A close relative who was diagnosed with breast cancer before menopause or in both breasts
  • Never had children or delivered her first child after age 30

Dr. Goulet added that a patient's medical history also is important in determining if she will develop breast cancer. Patients who have a history of receiving radiation therapy for other conditions are at greater risk, as are those who have undergone numerous breast biopsies.

Obese women, especially those who are post-menopausal, women who consume excessive amounts of alcohol (greater than two ounces per day) and those who smoke are at increased risk.

As with so many other diseases, exercise can help ward off breast cancer. "Women who exercise as little as 30 minutes three times a week can decrease their risk of breast cancer," Dr. Goulet said.

He also added that exposure to underarm deodorants, hair dyes and caffeine does not increase a person's chances of developing breast cancer. 

Unfortunately, most women – and men – often don't have any symptoms to make them suspect anything is wrong. "Most women who present with clinically detectable breast abnormalities have had their cancers for a decade or more," Dr. Goulet said. 

What should women look for?

An obvious mass and changes in the skin or nipple such as itching, reddening, thickening, ulceration, or retraction are causes for concern, according to Dr. Goulet.

Other symptoms include:

  • Spontaneous nipple discharge
  • Bloody nipple discharge
  • Changes in the size or shape of the breast
  • Although uncommon, breast pain may be an indication

Once detected, breast cancer is usually treated by both local therapy and systemic therapy.

In local therapy, the goal is to eliminate the cancer in the breast and the related lymph nodes and minimize the risk of recurrence. Treatment options include surgery and radiation therapy.

Systemic therapy involves eliminating tumor cells that might have escaped into the circulation and minimizing the risk of developing distant sites of tumor growth. Treatment options include chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, and a newer and ever-expanding class of agents known as biological therapy.

"The biological agents are utilizing scientific breakthroughs in the secrets of tumor cells to destroy cancer in ways that are focused specifically to the patients' tumor," Dr. Goulet said.

He added, "These options are the same for male breast cancer patients. Stage for stage, they have the same outcome as women."

Overall, breast cancer knows no boundaries. "Breast cancer follows no rules with respect to age, race, or gender and if a patient is unsure of risk or concerned with a new finding, she -- or he -- should seek attention," Dr. Goulet said.