What you should know about breast cancer and tips for reading online information

What you should know about breast cancer and tips for reading online information

By Patricia L. Dawson, MD, PhD, FACS
Breast Cancer Surgeon

Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’ve been paying more attention to online blogs about breast cancer and realize there is a lot of information and misinformation out there. How can you know what’s correct, what’s marketing, and what is just plain wrong? Here are some tips:

  1. Be an aware and questioning reader: Ask yourself some of the following questions. What is the source of the information? Does the author have anything to gain financially from the information? Are there studies that provide data supporting the recommendations? Who funded the studies and were there any potential conflicts of interest?
  2. Investigate more than one source: Healthcare has become very politicized and complicated but you can find reliable sources. But realize even with trusted sources the information provided may be conflicting. Some reliable sources include: Swedish Cancer Institute, Breast Cancer Action, National Cancer Institute, and American Cancer Society.

  3. Don’t be taken in by conspiracy theorists: I have practiced surgery for 30 years in a variety of situations and healthcare institutions and NEVER have I experienced a desire to withhold effective tests and treatments from patients. Physicians and hospital systems are not suppressing tests, treatments, and /or cures in order to stay in business. I don’t know a breast surgeon who wouldn’t be thrilled to have to practice another specialty if there was a way to prevent breast cancer.

Here are some things that I think it is important to know about breast cancer:

  • Screening mammograms don’t prevent breast cancer but they can help diagnose it at an early, therefore more treatable stage. Studies have conclusively shown that regular screening mammograms can reduce the death rate from breast cancer. There is disagreement about the age to start mammograms and the frequency, but none about the effectiveness.

  • Mammograms are only a part of screening. Screening should also include familiarity with your own breast exam and clinical breast exams by your provider. For high-risk women, screening may also include breast MRI and/or ultrasound. High-risk women should consider being followed in a breast center with a high-risk screening program, like the True Center.

  • Breast cancer is very treatable and for many women, even if they develop metastatic disease, it may be more like a chronic disease. It does, however, require treatment – usually with a combination of surgery, radiation, and medications.
  • Breast cancer is not a single disease – there are various types of breast cancer with a variety of features. Consequently, it is not appropriate for every patient to be treated in the same way. Rather, the treatment for breast cancer is very individualized to the particular circumstances.
  • There are still disparities in breast cancer diagnosis, treatment, and outcomes that may be related to race, socio-economic status, culture, and other factors. We need to work to make sure that all women with breast cancer can have an excellent outcome.

(Here are some related blog posts for more information: getting a mammogram; what you need to know about breast screening; why standardization of care; and what test is best for breast screening.)

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