As everything turns pink for breast cancer awareness during October, attention turns to the 1 in 8 women who will experience breast cancer in their lifetime. Minnesota ranks among the states with the highest breast cancer rates in the nation. 

Lake Region Healthcare Cancer Center Oncologist, Dr. Anthony Rooney, provided his perspectives on screening, prevention, treatment, and where to find trustworthy information on this important topic. 

What advancements have been made in screening for breast cancer? 

Dr. Rooney:  Mammography is a wonderful tool that has been able to help us decrease the mortality rate for breast cancer, both in the US and worldwide. And there’s been a lot of advancements as far as the imaging technology and tomosynthesis or 3D mammograms. 3D mammograms can more precisely identify which patients are more likely to have breast cancers and who needs to come back for biopsies while also giving us a closer look at the breast tissue itself. For women who are at higher risk, additional tools such as ultrasound and MRI can also be considered to make sure that we’re being thorough in investigating for breast cancer outside of mammography. The future of screening for breast cancer in 10 or 20 years from now is hard to predict, but there is a lot of research going into blood-based assays and other technologies. While that’s probably not ready for primetime right now, it’s something that may be available in the future.

What is the current recommendation for screening intervals?

Dr. Rooney: This is an area of medicine that’s been filled with controversy from the start. Different societies will have different recommendations for exactly when the appropriate time to be screened is and how frequently we should be screening our patients. What I would say to help sift through all of that, would be to have a conversation with your primary doctor and to tailor or individualize a plan that is the best fit for you. But for most women who are at average risk, every other year or yearly mammograms are both reasonable options to consider. 

What should we know about risk factors? 

Dr. Rooney: There are really two types of risk factors: the non-modifiable or genetic ones and the modifiable ones, those you have some control over. There are number of genetic risk factors we can put our finger on. Some of the more common hereditary gene mutations that can lead to increased risks for breast cancer are BRCA1 and BRCA2. Many people are familiar with these, but there are some lesser-known genetic alterations that can also predispose patients to an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Talking with your primary healthcare provider, especially if you have a family history of breast cancer, to decide whether it would be a good idea to consider genetic testing for any of these mutations would be important.

Additional non-modifiable risk factors include age, breast density, and age at menarche and menopause.

There are also several modifiable risk factors. In general, higher levels of exercise, trying to maintain a normal body weight by eating healthy and increase fruit and vegetable intake, and making sure not to consume alcohol in excess are some of the stronger factors tied to reducing breast cancer risk. There are other things that are maybe more controversial such as short-term duration of hormone therapy, which is something to discuss with your primary doctor if you do have concerns about that. Overall, trying to live a healthy lifestyle is one of the best ways to prevent breast cancer.

What’s new in the area of treatment for breast cancer?

Dr. Rooney:  There have been several new advances in recent years that have really benefited women who have breast cancer. In almost every breast cancer subtype, there have been new approvals that have led to better quality of life and increased survival. This is a very exciting area of research and development. 

Are there particular reputable resources you recommend to learn more about breast cancer? 

Dr. Rooney:  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a very good resource as well as the American Cancer Society. Locally, you can find a wealth of information on Lake Region Healthcare’s website as well as the Minnesota Department of Health, the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota. 

What else do you want people to know about breast cancer? 

Dr. Rooney:  I think one of the good things about Breast Cancer Awareness Month is it just reminds us how very common this cancer is, so maybe our neighbors or our family members are going through it now or may go through in their lives. This awareness should help us have a greater degree of compassion and to be proactive in finding ways we can reach out to those around us and be with them in their journeys as well.

About Dr. Rooney

Dr. Rooney received his BA in Chemistry from the University of Minnesota Morris and went on to obtain his medical degree at the University of Arkansas College of Medicine. He completed his Internal Medicine residency at the University of Virginia Health System and his fellowship in Hematology/Oncology at the University of Kansas Medical Center. He is a member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the American Society of Hematology.

Originally from Belgrade, Minn., Dr. Rooney is very passionate about providing access to high-quality cancer and hematology care in rural communities and is proud to serve the Lake Region Healthcare Cancer Center’s surrounding communities in this capacity. In his spare time, he enjoys spending time with his wife and three young daughters. They enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, fishing, canoeing, and frequenting local parks.