Breast Cancer: The Odds
Pink, the traditional color of baby girls and fairy princesses, has also become synonymous with breast cancer. Pink ribbons pinned to pink t-shirts have certainly contributed to heightened public awareness of the condition, and nationwide events like the hugely popular Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure® and the Yoplait yogurt Save Lids to Save Lives® pink lid campaign allow everyone to get involved. With the 1 in 8.28 odds that a female will receive a medical diagnosis of breast cancer in her lifetime, chances are high the disease will touch your life, or the life of someone you know. Even men have a 1 in 833.3 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer.
For all the instant recognizability of pink and the outpouring of public support, many people do not know much about breast cancer. Unlike with many other kinds of cancer, there are no easily identifiable breast cancer risk factors. While hormone therapy, obesity, alcohol consumption, and genetics have been found to increase a woman’s chances of developing breast cancer, simply being a woman and getting older are risk enough. The incidence of breast cancer diagnosis begins rising at age 40 and peaks between ages 75 and 79. In fact, young women are relatively protected, with only a 1 in 2,337 chance they will be diagnosed with breast cancer in any given year before age 50. For women over 50, however, the risk in any given year increases to 1 in 300.1.
Breast cancer can show up as a lump in the breast, skin changes on the breast, nipple discharge, or—most commonly— as a finding on a screening mammogram. Mammograms are special x-rays to examine breast tissue and are recommended annually for women over the age of 40. Mammograms can detect cancer before the manifestation of clinical signs, increasing the likelihood of cure. This early detection probably accounts for the fact that in 1975 the odds a woman would die of breast cancer in a year were1 in 3,185, and by 2006—when more women were getting regular mammograms—that figure had decreased to 1 in 4,264.
While breast cancer deaths are going down, diagnoses are going up. The odds a female would have been diagnosed with breast cancer in any given year were 1 in 951.5 in 1975. By 2000, that had increased to 1 in 736.4, and in 2006 the situation had only slightly improved to 1 in 812.7. But mammograms probably account for that trend too. While mammograms detect potentially lethal cancers at an earlier stage, they also detect benign conditions and cancers that would not spread or cause further health problems during someone’s lifetime. Because even after biopsy it may not be possible to distinguish between dangerous and harmless cancers at an early stage, they all get diagnosed and treated. The more women who get screened, the more lives will be saved, but also the more cancers will be diagnosed.
Depending on what type of breast cancer a patient has, the disease is managed by chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, or a combination of the three. The good news is that, with proper treatment, the chances of survival are quite favorable. The predicted odds that a woman diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 would survive at least one year are 1 in 1.02 (98%), the odds that she will survive at least five years are 1 in 1.11 (89%), and the odds that she will survive at least 20 years are 1 in 1.38 (72%)—better survival odds than almost all other cancers. Now there’s a reason to wear pink!