Globally, breast cancer is the most common cancer to affect women. Of all women suffering from cancer, 23 percent will be battling breast cancer. The breast cancer mortality rate is also high. Data shows that in 2008, breast cancer caused nearly half a million deaths across the world.
As is generally the case with most types of cancer, the likelihood of developing breast cancer is associated with both affluence and with age. Discounting age related factors, rates of breast cancer are lowest in eastern Asia, higher in northern and western Europe and most prevalent in North America. The rate of breast cancer in North America is some five times higher than in eastern Asia.
Breast cancer is also a condition very strongly associated with ageing - no more than 5 percent of cases occur in women who are under 40 years old.
Unfortunately, breast cancer is on the rise. Over the last 40 years, diagnoses of this cancer have increased significantly, leading experts to believe that lifestyle changes - in the West and across the world - may play a role in causing breast cancer.
This increase in breast cancer has also brought to light another issue - how to treat women of different ages. Because younger women are less likely to have the disease, there is less research into the best treatments for patients under 40. Indeed, long term survival rates for younger women with breast are lower when compared to their older counterparts.
There is a definite need for more clinical trials involving women under 40, so that doctors can be better equipped to diagnose and treat this group of breast cancer sufferers. At the moment, some researchers have theorized that the hormonal drug tamoxifen, a common breast cancer treatment, may need to be given to younger women for a longer period of time, or in higher doses. Seeing as tamoxifen blocks oestrogen, a hormone of which younger women have higher levels, this theory makes a great deal of sense.
Happily, the overall survival rate for women with breast cancer is improving. During the past four decades, researchers have seen survival rates double, meaning that more and more women are living at least 10 years after their initial cancer diagnosis.
As with all forms of cancer, survival depends on early detection and treatment. The issue of early intervention is especially important in the United Kingdom - recent research has suggested that British women whose cancer is detected at a late stage have less positive outcomes than similarly diagnosed women in Scandinavia and North America. Considering the similarities in lifestyle and affluence, it is worrying that British women would have lower rates of survival.
Women with late detected cancer in the UK were found to have survival rates (defined as living for at least three years after an initial diagnosis) of only 28 percent, compared to 42 percent for women in Sweden. When breast cancer is diagnosed at an earlier stage, survival rates are much more even across an international sample.
Clearly, early detection is key to improving care for breast cancer; this is true in the UK as well as across the world. Even first world countries can stand to improve: In Denmark showed , a national breast cancer screening programme was not introduced until 2007.Also important to remember is that breast cancer can raise significant emotional and cultural issues because of the way that the disease is seen to strike at a unique aspect of femininity. There have even been suggestions that this has in fact generated a disproportionate attention and allocation of research and other resources. Of course breast cancer is a significant health issue and carries potential fatal consequences, but still - 10 times more women die from heart disease or from stroke than do from breast cancer.
At the same time, most would agree that although breast cancer may not be the most deadly illness that affects women, it is a health care concern that must be properly addressed. There is no routine use of CT scanning in the UK for women with breast cancer, which means that doctors may not notice that an initial cancer has spread, until it is too late. Lower rates of breast cancer survival for British women aged 70 and older is also an issue, and may be due to less aggressive treatment.
Surely, more uniform international approaches to breast cancer could bring about greater uniformity in survival rates at every level of detection. With better techniques in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, over 1,000 lives could be saved every year, and that's in the United Kingdom alone.