Survival Rates Much Better If Second Cancer Detected Early

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Women successfully treated for early-stage breast cancer have a higher-than-average risk of a new breast cancer developing in the same or opposite breast. These women also are at risk of the original cancer coming back (recurrence). A study found that survival rates are much better when any second breast cancer is detected early.

Researchers looked at the medical records of 1,044 women in Florence, Italy who were diagnosed and successfully treated for early-stage breast cancer. All the women were diagnosed with another breast cancer, at least 6 months after the first diagnosis, between 1980 and 2005. The timing is important because many of the women received breast cancer treatment more than 20 years ago, when diagnosis, treatment, and prevention techniques for new and recurrent breast cancer weren't as good as they are today.

The women were followed for an average of 14 years after their first breast cancer diagnosis. During this time, about half the women had a recurrence of the original breast cancer and the other half had a new, second breast cancer in the opposite breast diagnosed.

After breast cancer was diagnosed a second time, the women's chances of survival were 27% to 47% higher if the second breast cancer was small and had no symptoms when diagnosed, compared to second breast cancers that caused symptoms such as a lump, a skin change, or nipple discharge. Mammograms were much better than clinical breast exams at finding the second breast cancer. Still, clinical exams were the only way the second breast cancers were found in about 14% of the women.

If you've been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, your treatment plan may include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and hormonal therapy to lower the risk of the cancer coming back. Still, breast cancer recurrence does happen. Even if the original breast cancer doesn't come back, your risk of developing a new, second breast cancer in the same or opposite breast is much higher than average. Sticking to an aggressive screening plan is the best way to make sure that any breast cancer is diagnosed early, when it's most treatable.

There are a number of things you can do to take charge and make sure your risk of the cancer coming back or being diagnosed with a new, different breast cancer is as low as it can be:

Plan your treatment with any future risk in mind. If you've been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, ask your doctor about treatment options that are best for your current diagnosis and also address your future risk. Surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapies, and hormonal therapies are used to treat breast cancer AND to lower the risk of the breast cancer coming back.

Stick with your treatment plan. Your doctor may have prescribed hormonal therapy or another treatment to lower your risk of the breast cancer coming back. Follow that treatment plan just as your doctor has prescribed. Don't change your plan or stop taking any medicine without talking to your doctor about any concerns you have.

Create a screening plan and stick to it. The best time to develop a screening plan for a possible recurrence or a new, second breast cancer is while you're being treated. Together, you and your doctor can create a screening plan that's best for your unique situation. Your plan may include frequent exams by your doctor, breast self-exams, mammograms, or other imaging techniques, such as MRI. After your treatment is done, you may tempted to skip some follow-up screening tests. Don't -- you need to take good care of you and your future.

Lower your risk by taking charge of those things you can. You may be able to make changes in your diet and lifestyle to reduce your risk of breast cancer. Visit the Breastcancer.org Lower Your Risk section to learn more.

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