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Women handle a variety of roles. We are managers, leaders, caregivers, team players, examples, role models, sisters, aunts, grandmas and moms. Our interests vary as wide as the opportunities that support them. Yet one concern that unites us is the fear of breast cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, around 232,670 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed this year.

Dr. Bruce McAllister, Chief Medical Officer and Radiation Oncologist with the Central Utah Clinic Cancer Center, understands this concern and offered some advice and information about early breast cancer detection and treatment.

What are the warning signs of breast cancer?

“There are a lot of warning signs for detecting breast cancer,” explained McAllister. “The most important one is a lump or mass in the breast. This is especially suspicious if it is hard, has an irregular border, and doesn’t hurt.”

In truth, a trait in the early stages of most forms of cancer is a painless lump or mass. Unfortunately this circumstance is often tempting to ignore. Doctors encourage women to be proactive when discovering such symptoms.

“Even if it is round and soft and does hurt, you should bring it to the attention of your physician so he or she can decide whether or not it needs to be biopsied,” cautioned Dr. McAllister.

What technologies can be used to detect and treat breast cancer?

To detect the onset of breast cancer early, patients may be encouraged to discover some of the new technologies being used by cancer treatment centers. One of the newer procedures at the Central Utah Clinic is an MRI (magnetic resonance image) of the breast.

“Screenings were done with mammograms and ultrasounds,” said Dr. McAllister. “And still should be. All women over the age of 40 should get an annual mammogram as long as they remain in good health. But some women are at particularly high risk of breast cancer, so it’s good to add another test, namely an MRI of the breast, to see if we can detect the onset of cancer early.”

Candidates for this type of testing include women with genetic mutations or those who have a very strong history of breast cancer in the family.

There have also been advancements in radiation and chemotherapy. “At our facility, we have both medical oncologists and radiation oncologists,” said Dr. McAllister. “As a radiation oncologist, I only use radiation. But the medical oncologists use some of the more targeted therapies in addition to chemotherapy and in addition to hormone therapy.”

How can I minimize side effects of treatment?

One of the many desires of women undergoing treatment for breast cancer is to live a normal life amid treatments. For women using radiation therapy for treatment, some may wonder what things can be done to avoid or minimize the negative side effects of treatment.

“There are skin lotions you can use for relief, but overall there isn’t a lot you can do as a patient to prevent burning of the skin,” admitted Dr. McAllister. “But there is a lot I can do as the physician. For example, I can use the latest technologies such as 3-D Conformal Radiation Therapy and Field-in-Field techniques to reduce hot spots in the dose we deliver to the breast, which in turn prevents or reduces burning of the skin.”

3-D techniques enable the physician to target beams of radiation that match the shape and dimensions of the breast and later match the radiation to the shape and dimensions of the cavity where the mass was prior to surgery. As part of the process, the radiation oncologist takes 3-D images of the breast and cavity. A computer analyzes the exact shape, height, width and depth of the breast and cavity. Then the machine targets beams directly onto the breast for a few weeks and then onto the cavity for a week or two. One of the benefits of using 3-D Conformal Radiation Therapy is that the physician can direct higher levels of radiation precisely onto the cancerous tumor, thus providing a stronger and more effective treatment in trying to shrink or eliminate tumors.

“As this 3-D process targets the breast itself, it affects as little of the surrounding tissue, such as the lung and heart, as possible. In this way I can increase the chance of cure and reduce the chance of side effects. In addition, for some women, we are beginning to use breast boards that hold the patient in the prone position vs. the supine position. Laying the woman on her stomach allows the breast to fall away from the chest wall giving more distance between the breast and the lung and heart. This extra distance allows us to spare the lung and heart from radiation even more than before.”

For more information about the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, or to make an appointment with Dr. Bruce McAllister, connect with Central Utah Clinic for information on services, locations, events and more.