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Breast Cancer Cases Rise in United Kingdom; Treatment Improves (dateline September 27, 2003)

In a similar trend to the one seen in the United States, the number of breast cancer cases in the United Kingdom is on the rise, according to the British charity, Cancer Research UK. An all-time high of 40,000 women are now diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the United Kingdom. However, survival rates continue to improve, with three out of four UK breast cancer patients living five years or longer after their diagnosis. Experts attribute the improved survival to better treatments and screening methods.

According to Cancer Research UK Clinical Director, Professor Robert Souhami, the increase in breast cancer cases is a concern and screening programs that detect breast cancer in its early stages remain very important. Mammograms detect approximately 85% of breast cancer cases and can find cancer years before a lump can be felt by hand. Typically, the earlier breast cancer is detected, the greater the chances it can be treated successfully.

While breast cancer cases are increasing in the United Kingdom, deaths from the disease are decreasing. Cancer Research UK estimates that 13,000 women died of breast cancer in 2001. This represents a decrease of 21% over the last decade.

The charity cites screening programs and improved treatments, such as the drug tamoxifen, for the decline in deaths from breast cancer. "Tamoxifen has been in use for 20 years and the screening programme has been up and running for the last 15. These two advances alone account for significant improvements in survival," said Professor Jack Cuzick, Head of Cancer Research UK's Epidemiology, Mathematics & Statistics Department at the Wolfson Institute for Preventive Medicine in London.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the American Cancer Society estimates that 211,300 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2003. However, deaths from breast cancer continue to decline in the United States as well, with an estimated 40,200 deaths (39,800 women, 400 men) expected this year. The rate of breast cancer deaths declined by 1.4% between 1989 and 1995 and by 3.2% since 1995.

Top cancer cases expected among American women in 2003:*

  • Breast (211,300 new cases)
  • Lung and bronchus (80,100 new cases)
  • Colon and rectum (74,700)

Source: ACS Cancer Facts & Figures, 2003

Experts say that the reasons behind the increase in breast cancer cases remain complex since many of the risk factors for breast cancer are still unknown or not well understood. For instance, the levels of hormones in the body play a role in determining breast cancer risk, but researchers are still investigating how and why this is the case. It is known that women who begin menstruating at an early age (before age 12) or reach menopause later (after age 50) may have a greater risk for breast cancer, compared to other women.

Weight may also be tied to hormones, according to Professor Cuzick. "We know that obesity in post menopausal women is a risk factor and that it can raise the levels of estrogen. We also know that levels of obesity have been rising steadily in the past decade and this may be contributing to the upward trend," said Professor Cuzick in a Cancer Research UK news release.

While researchers continue to study the causes of breast cancer, early detection remains critical. The U.S. National Cancer Institute recommends that all women beginning receiving mammograms every two years at age 40, and continue with yearly mammograms at age 50 and beyond. Breast self-exams and physical-performed clinical breast exams may also be important in finding breast cancer in its early stages.

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