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Breast cancer death rates decline

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More access to mammograms and early detection of breast cancer resulted in a significant decline in the percentage of women who died from the disease during the 1990s, according to a report released Friday by the American Cancer Society.

More than 90 percent of breast cancers are caught at an early stage of the disease, when the chances of a woman surviving more than 5 years are greater, the report found. Because of early detection through regular mammograms, the death rate from breast cancer declined more than 20 percent between 1990 and 2000, even as the overall rate of incidence increased slightly.

“The decline in mortality rates is certainly good news,” said Elizabeth Ward, director of epidemiology for the American Cancer Society and one of the authors of the report. “While there has been overall increase in incidence, the increase is in cases that are confined to local stages and are highly treatable.”

The key factor behind the considerable progress against breast cancer is women receiving regular mammograms, Ward said.

Some medical experts recommend that women over the age of 40 should have a mammogram annually. Mammograms are a low-dose x-ray procedure which detect many breast cancers when the tumor is small and most treatable.

Survival rates have also improved because of advances in chemotherapy combined with surgery, and drugs such as tamoxifen, the cancer society’s report said.

A 0.4 percent increase in the incidence of breast cancer between 1987 and 2000 is due to women delaying childbearing and having fewer children, the study found. Along with obesity and alcohol consumption, having a first child after the age of 30 is associated with increased risk of developing the disease.

Ward’s excitement about the progress against breast cancer is dampened by some troubling news for African-American women.

Black women with breast cancer are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage and have poor survival rates compared to white women, the report said.

Only 74 percent of African-American women with breast cancer are likely to survive after 5 years, compared to the 88 percent survival rate of white women over the same time period.

A lack of health insurance and access to mammographies may account for some of the lower survival rates for black women, Ward said.

“The big advantage that women can gain by having regularly mammography [exams] is not being distributed equally,” she added.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among women, topped only by lung cancer. It strikes more than 200,000 a year in the United State. Over 39,000 American women with breast cancer will die this year.