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The Truth About Breast Cancer

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Study Raises Concerns About a Faster Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer

True. A quick, new and increasingly popular kind of radiation treatment did cause more complications than the traditional kind.

The fine print: Researchers from the University of Texas and Chicago analyzed the medical insurance claims of over 90,000 breast cancer patients and found that women who chose accelerated partial-breast irradiation (APBI)—a one-week treatment that delivers radiation to a targeted area of the breast via a catheter—were twice as likely to experience infection, bleeding or other problems as those who received whole-breast irradiation, which usually takes six or seven weeks. In addition, the women who had APBI were almost twice as likely to have a mastectomy in the following five years, which is a probable sign the cancer came back. Happily, there was no difference between the two treatment groups when it came to overall survival.

Your takeaway: "You need to be aware that there is greater uncertainty about the long-term pros and cons of APBI compared to traditional whole-breast irradiation," says study co-author Benjamin D. Smith, M.D., an associate professor of radiation oncology at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He considers APBI very promising and suspects it won't be long before doctors are able to determine which patients are the best candidates for it. Until then, there's some good news for anyone worried about fitting whole-breast irradiation into a hectic schedule: "We've learned how to make the treatment faster and more convenient, bringing down the number of weeks you need it to three to four," notes Dr. Smith.

Diabetes Raises the Risk of Breast Cancer

True. When Australian researchers analyzed 43 studies on the connection between these two diseases, they found having type 2 diabetes raised the probability of developing breast cancer by 22%. If you had gestational diabetes—a short-lived form of the disease that goes away after pregnancy—you're not in elevated danger.

The fine print: It's not known how or why diabetes increases breast cancer chances, but it may be that an excess of insulin circulating in the bloodstream fuels the growth and spread of cancerous cells, according to study coauthor Guy D. Eslick, Dr.P.H., associate professor of surgery and cancer epidemiology at the University of Sydney.

Your takeaway: "It's reasonable to assume you can reverse your breast cancer risk by reversing your diabetes," says Eslick. He believes exercise and eating right to lose weight are the best tactics, but also recommends that women who are having trouble controlling their condition with lifestyle changes talk to their doctor about taking metformin. This diabetes drug may do double duty as a potent anti-breast-cancer agent, according to several preliminary studies.

Understanding Angelina Jolie's Decision

When actress Angelina Jolie, 38, announced in May that she'd had both breasts removed as a precautionary measure, it made headlines around the world. It also made many of us wonder who should have this surgery.

Prophylactic mastectomy may be a good choice for some women (like Jolie) who test positive for inherited gene mutations, known as BRCA1 or BRCA2. Carriers have about a 60% risk of eventually developing breast cancer compared to 12% for the average woman. Any woman who has had a close family member diagnosed with breast cancer by age 50 or two or more relatives diagnosed with ovarian cancer should consider testing. (Jolie's 61-year-old aunt died after a nine-year battle with breast cancer, and her mother died of ovarian cancer at 56.)

For women who test positive, prophylactic mastectomy isn't the only option. Close monitoring with mammograms and MRI scans can help catch breast cancer early, and medication, such as tamoxifen or raloxifene, can lower the risk too.