Medicine: Breast Cancer: Fear and Facts

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Indeed, both Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller faced their terrifying illnesses with remarkable poise. Their examples should help thousands of others to overcome quite natural fears, and to learn the facts about a serious and little understood disease that once was discussed only in whispers.

Breast cancer is not a new disease. The papyrus records of ancient Egyptian medicine contain references to breast lumps and swellings. But this ailment has drawn increased attention in recent years. It is the leading killer of women in the 40-to-44 age group and the primary cause of cancer deaths among women of all ages, striking one out of every 15. Before 1974 has ended, some 90,000 American women will learn that they have cancer of the breast; another 33,000 will die from it.

Their deaths will result not simply from the growth of the cancer in the breast, but from the invasion of other parts of the body by the malignant cells. Untreated breast tumors can metastasize, or spread, rapidly—invading the lungs, skeleton, liver or brain. The spreading cancer can also kill by interfering with the production of substances the body needs for normal functioning, thus weakening the victim and leaving her unable to resist infectious disease.

Greater Risk. Any woman can develop breast cancer,* but some seem more susceptible to it than others. Statistically, the woman in the greatest danger is someone in her mid- to late 40s, who began menstruating early and continued late, who never had children or did not begin having them until she was past 30, who is obese and whose mother or sister had the disease. This does not mean that someone who fits most or even all of these categories is certain to develop breast cancer. Nor does it mean that the disease is hereditary; no evidence whatever has been found to suggest that genes for breast tumors are passed from generation to generation.

But the disease does have a disturbing tendency to run in families. A woman whose mother or sister has had breast cancer is twice as likely to develop the disease as a woman with no such family history. If both her mother and sister have had breast cancer, her risk may be 47 times greater.

Despite years of research, doctors still know relatively little about the cause of breast cancer. There is no certainty about the role of viruses, despite the fact that they are known to cause breast cancers in animals; research has yet to establish that they can do the same in humans. Virus-like particles have been found in the breast milk of women with cancer and family histories of the disease. But viruses have also been detected in the milk of women who have not had cancer. Hormones produced by women during the menstrual cycle and pregnancy are also under suspicion, but no one has yet determined how they might cause breast cancer or be controlled to prevent it.

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