October is breast cancer awareness month, and as it comes to an end this week, the Grand River Hospital wants to spread the word about their new high-risk breast cancer screening program. Started back on July 1, it seeks to find women who are at an increased risk for breast cancer compared to the general population, and rather than using typical mammogram technology to search for possible signs of cancer, they are instead using more advanced MRI technology.
The screening process searches for four main groups of women; the first are women who doctors know have a genetic mutation making them more susceptible for breast cancer. This is a relatively small number, probably only one per cent of the population of women with the disease.
The second are women who have a mother or a sister with that known genetic mutation.
The third group is women who in the past have had radiation treatment for other types of cancer, such as lymphoma and leukemia.
And the final group is women with a particularly bad family history for breast cancer, meaning they have had several family members develop the disease.
“Those four groups of women, we think we should channel them off from the usual mammography form of screening and use MRI screening,” said Dr. Craig McFadyen, regional vice-president for Cancer Care Ontario and vice-president of cancer services at GRH.
There is evidence that suggests MRI screening is more sensitive for some women, he says, meaning that doctors can find abnormalities quicker, leading to earlier treatment.
Patients who are part of the program will not be placed in the general population of those waiting for an MRI, as the clinic has specialized hours set aside solely to conduct MRI’s for the purpose of breast cancer screening.
The GRH high-risk screening program is one of 19 across the province, and patients are tested yearly using an MRI machine. Routinely women should start having mammograms at the age of 50, but for women who fall within this high-risk category, McFadyen says there is no standard age group.
“If a woman feels that she falls into that group she needs to contact her family practitioner,” he said.
The doctor can then make a referral for the patient to visit the high-risk centre, where a genetic counselor will used specialized tools and go through a series of questions and the patients own medical history to determine if they are at risk.
If a woman is found to have a risk greater than 25 per cent for developing breast cancer, she will be automatically switched into the high-risk group.
In 2011, it is estimated that 9,000 Ontario women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and that 1,950 will die from the disease. McFadyen estimates that about 170 women will come through the high-risk clinic this year alone, but it’s not enough he says.
A woman diagnosed with breast cancer in Waterloo today has an 85 per cent chance of being alive and well five years after her diagnosis, and a third of that is related to better screening, he said. He also added that for the vast majority of women, a mammogram is enough to catch the early signs of cancer.
“Our target is to screen about 80 per cent of women at risk and we’re in the 60-65 per cent range now. We would like to see more women in the target age group get screened by at least a mammogram every two years.”
For more information on the Ontario Breast Cancer Screening Program, call 1-800-668-9304 or visit www.cancercare.on.ca/obsp.