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Early Detection Best for Breast Cancer Survival

We’ve made significant strides in breast cancer treatment in recent years. But according to a recent study, the chances of survival still depend on early detection.

The study, of nearly 174,000 Dutch breast cancer patients between 1999 and 2012, found overall survival rates improved, including among women with more advanced cancer. But survival odds were best when women’s tumors were caught early.

“The general prospects for a woman diagnosed with breast cancer in the Western world are very good,” said lead researcher Madeleine Tilanus-Linthorst, M.D., of Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

Researchers found an 88 percent five-year survival rate among women diagnosed with breast cancer between 2006 and 2012. That figure is up from 83 percent among women diagnosed with the cancer between 1999 and 2005. The increased survival rate extended to women with more advanced cancer. Among those with larger tumors—more than 2 inches across—the research revealed the five-year survival rate rose 10 percentage points, from 63 percent to 73 percent.

But the smaller a woman’s tumor at diagnosis, the better the outcome, the study found. Of women diagnosed in more recent years, nearly all survived at least five years if their tumor was caught when it was less than three-quarters of an inch across.

In fact, their five-year survival rates were comparable to those of an average woman their age who’d never been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Catching the cancer early is still highly important,” Dr. Tilanus-Linthorst said.

Of the women diagnosed between 2006 and 2012, she noted, 65 percent had their tumors caught when they were still less than three-quarters of inch in size, suggesting size does matter.

In this study, women diagnosed with breast cancer in more recent years were more likely to receive the latest therapies as well as “breast conserving” surgery—where only the tumor and some surrounding tissue are removed. But even with these new treatments and more conservative surgery, the study concluded that tumor size at diagnosis is a significant factor in a woman’s outcome.

This is key because it points out the benefits of mammograms. Currently, the American Cancer Society recommends that women between the ages of 45 to 54 get mammograms every year and they suggest women aged 40 to 44 consider the option to start screening with a mammogram every year.

But starting the screening process earlier is particularly important for black women as they are more likely to develop aggressive, hard-to-treat breast cancers at younger ages than their white counterparts. In fact, even though the overall rates of breast cancer in black and white women are about the same, black women are more likely to die from breast cancer.

Ultimately, the biggest takeaway from the study is that catching breast cancer early helps saves lives.

This article is sponsored by Eli Lilly & Company.

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