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Breast Cancer Awareness Month is an opportunity to educate everyone on mammograms' effectiveness in the early detection of breast cancer and why all patients must have access to timely, high-quality care.
Mammograms remain the most effective screening method for breast cancer, and mammogram technology can now precisely pinpoint tumors in the breast.
Comprehensive breast cancer programs, like the one at the Swedish Cancer Institute, can provide highly personal care to patients from their first mammogram through treatment and survivorship.
Since the American Cancer Society founded Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October 1985, this annual campaign has increased awareness about the importance of early detection and provided focused support on developing innovative screenings and treatments — both with the result of driving down breast cancer mortality rates.
Mammograms — still the gold standard for detection — have evolved to make detecting breast cancer at its earliest stages possible. Treatments are more targeted and effective. And survivorship care has become a vital facet of comprehensive breast cancer care.
To better understand the current landscape of breast cancer detection and treatment, we spoke with Michaela Tsai, M.D., a medical oncologist, hematologist, and the medical director of the breast cancer care program at the Swedish Cancer Institute, who talked with us about the currently available breast cancer testing and treatments and offered some guidance for navigating breast cancer care.
Ask for 3D mammogram technology
“Regular mammograms lower your risk of dying from breast cancer, and for many women, mammograms remain the best way to detect breast cancer,” says Dr. Tsai.
Today, mammogram technicians and breast cancer radiologists use 3D mammography (tomosynthesis) to generate precise, three-dimensional images of breast tissue.
The experience of getting a 3D mammogram is similar to a standard (2D) mammogram. Each breast gets compressed from two different angles while a low-dose X-ray machine takes pictures. A 2D mammogram captures two images of breast tissue, but with a 3D mammogram, the machine moves in a small arc around the breast and captures many images that are put together into a series of small slices.
It is believed that 3D mammography can help find more breast cancers than 2D mammography, and 3D mammography is especially helpful for women who have dense breasts. 3D mammography may also lower your chance of being called back for follow-up testing.
To compare the effectiveness of 2D and 3D mammograms, researchers at Swedish are participating in the TMIST (Tomosynthesis Mammographic Imaging Screening Trial). TMIST is a National Cancer Institute-sponsored randomized study with the goal of determining if 3D mammograms are more successful in reducing the incidence of advanced breast cancer.
Look for fellowship-trained breast cancer providers
Medical fellowships are reserved for the top medical school graduates. They are an opportunity for physicians who have completed their residency to train as an expert specialist in their sub-specialty. If a doctor is “fellowship trained,” it means they have the highest level of dedication to their field.
Breast cancer centers like those at Swedish employ fellowship-trained breast radiologists, medical oncologists, and breast surgeons. Their advanced training and complete focus on breast cancer care put patients on a path to better outcomes if cancer is found.
Learn about the latest breast cancer research
“We are in an era of breast cancer care where the treatments are so successful that now we are looking at when and where we can de-escalate treatment, to take a step back to see where less is more,” says Dr. Tsai.
Clinical trials are pinpointing promising new surgical techniques, cancer treatment methods, and molecular and genomic testing. And at Swedish, the Paul G. Allen Research Center at Swedish Cancer Institute's Initiative for Cancer Prevention and Early Detection (IPED) aims to reach more at-risk patients with potentially lifesaving genetic counseling and testing to help prevent and detect cancer in its earliest stages.
Dr. Tsai explains that genomic testing can now predict if a patient is at a greater or lesser risk of recurrence so that providers know whether surgery and chemo alone might be enough, allowing patients to avoid radiation therapy.
Other research includes following women with Stage 2 or Stage 3 breast cancer with a higher risk of recurrence and performing regular blood tests that can detect a sudden increase in tumor DNA so that if additional treatment is needed, it can begin earlier. This has the potential to answer one of a breast cancer survivor’s most pressing questions: how will I know if my cancer has come back?
Make the most of life after breast cancer with survivorship care
“We used to think of breast cancer as an older woman’s disease,” says Dr. Tsai. “But now there is greater awareness of breast cancer in younger women, even in their late teens and early 20s, so patients are living long and full lives after they go through breast cancer treatment.”
Post-treatment care — called survivorship care — is a whole-person approach that helps patients through the long-term effects of cancer treatment.
“As providers, we are no longer just focused on the breast and the breast cancer,” says Dr. Tsai. “We’re also focused on the consequences of treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, and how to help women overcome those consequences to become better, stronger, healthier versions of themselves.”
Find a team of providers you trust
We know you’re busy, and finding time to schedule a mammogram can feel like a challenge. But regular mammograms can save lives, and for breast cancer patients, they are just the beginning of what can be a long cancer journey.
“When scheduling a mammogram, it’s important to remember that you’re not just choosing a place to get a mammogram,” says Dr. Tsai. “Breast cancer centers provide comprehensive care, beginning with mammograms and including additional imaging, chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, survivorship care, and more.”
- Breast medical oncologists
- Breast plastic surgeons
- Breast surgeons
- Genetic counselors
- Massage therapists
- Medical assistants
- Nurse practitioners
- Occupational therapists
- Physical therapists
- Radiation oncology team
- Social workers
So if you have a mammogram and cancer is found, you will likely have a long relationship with those providers. And you deserve a collaborative relationship with someone you trust, who will listen to you and can offer solutions aligned with your goals and values.
“At Swedish, the majority of our specialists are within one building and one neighborhood, which allows us to provide highly collaborative and personalized care,” says Dr. Tsai. “Our tumor board is available to review the most challenging cases, and we set our own schedules to take the time with each patient to give them the care they need.”
Innovation and compassionate care
Much has been learned about supportive care that can help patients through what can be difficult and challenging breast cancer treatments. Advancements like breast-conserving surgeries and skin-sparing and nipple-sparing mastectomies are changing the breast cancer surgery landscape. Innovations like cold capping can help patients lose less hair during chemotherapy. And virtual care, which is an option for some types of appointments, can relieve the stress of getting to and from visits.
“We reassure patients that all breast cancers are treatable and most are curable,” says Dr. Tsai. “We use research and technology to help meet patients where they are and provide care that supports them through treatment and beyond.”
Learn more and find a provider
If you have questions about mammograms and your options for breast cancer treatments, contact the Swedish Cancer Institute. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual appointments.
Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.
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